Tuesday, April 24, 2007

2 more education observations

I've been wondering a lot lately about parental involvement and student eduction. They have shown a slide at the Global Conference multiple times that highlights the impact of factors on student learning and achievement. Teacher quality is 43% of the impact, but parents/family was 49%. (The other 8% hardly seems to matter now, does it?) I could go into detail about how they measured it, but suffice it to say that teacher quality and home/family environment have almost all of the effect both positive and negative on student learning and achievement. It makes intuitive sense, of course - families that value education and nurture and support it tend to have kids that do better.

Yet this politically and institutionally, we seem to treat the job of educating kids as our schools' responsibility - almost as if it's their problem to deal with exclusively.

So I wonder, why can't we institute a formal contract between parents and teachers, that specifies what the teachers will do and what the expectations are of the parents? (I've heard of some schools doing this on an ad-hoc basis.) At the very least, it should include discipline expectations and food/clothing - after all, a hungry or cold student isn't likely to be ready to learn. But it should also include basic additional involvement like making quiet time available for homework/study every day, attending parent-teacher conferences, reviewing report cards and seeking remedial help when necessary.

Almost certainly this would need to be done school by school or district by district because conditions can vary so much. And I recognize that this can be hard for low income or single parents, but I think that the contract can point the parent to available programs and stipulate that they should be used if needed.

The point of doing such a contract is not to go about suing parents or anything like that, nor to assign blame when the kids don't achieve. The point is really twofold: (a) to highlight to the parent that education is a shared responsibility, and (b) to mitigate the inevitable problems and fights (and occasional lawsuits) that arise when a student is expelled for disciplinary issues, or gets a failing grade, or is held back a year. This mitigation would make it easier for teachers to choose to do the right thing rather than the easy thing.

My second observation arises from a session today that talked about play as a learning mechanism. A panelist made the observation that learning is fun, and the one place that we've done a great job of ensuring that learning isn't fun is...the classroom. I think these two points are dead-on. We are learning even when we are engaged in "mindless" play, even if it isn't intellectual pursuits. A laboratory or a kitchen are where we play to learn. I don't have a better idea for how best to learn theory and themes besides a classroom or textbook of some sort, but for "bottoms up" learning, I think that making play expose "academic" principles - whether physics, science, or social interactions - is a great way to teach and to learn. We should be more and more creative about incorporating these methods whereever they can lead to actual learning.

Monday, April 23, 2007

A few comments on education

I'm currently at the Milken Institute's Global Conference along with approximately 3000 other folks, listening to a bunch of panelist's talk about education (among other tracks). Not minor players either - Bill Bennett and Tim Pawlenty (governor of MN), heads of the state departments of education in MN, PA, MD, and OH, Sally Ride (talking about science), and others. Some interesting insights and talk (although, sadly, just talk - it is a conference after all).

Anyhow, my point is not to name drop but to make a few observations.

The first is that most teachers are underpaid. This is not particularly insightful - ask any teacher and they'll say that. This begs the question "so why do you teach?" The answer, it seems, is invariably some variation of "because I am so passionate about it." That's terrific and makes for great teachers, but at the risk of saying something offensive, I'll add this rebuttal: if you're so passionate about the profession that you're willing to work for peanuts, then you shouldn't be surprised that peanuts is what you get. In the same way that we have tons of actors who wait tables because they're passionate about acting but can't make a living with it, I wonder if we don't somehow have too many teachers in the system. If we had trouble hiring teachers, we'd probably see teacher salaries going up.

My second observation is around national standards for education. The topic came up several times today, and the general consensus seems to be that it's really hard to achieve national standards because education is such a local issue. I can't see how one can escape the need for national standards, though. The most obvious reason is the simple fact that family - and hence student - mobility is dramatically greater than what it was, say, 30 years ago. With students moving from district to district and state to state, the lack of national standards guarantees that they will have a disjoint experience.

The second reason to have national standards is that it has become apparent to me that, by and large, each teacher works in isolation and improvises how they go about teaching to a great deal. I recognize that it's really important for talented teachers to be able to devise creative methods for teaching; I even applaud this. But it also leads to discontinuities for students. Great musicians, however, all work from the same basic musical principles, and somehow this doesn't inhibit their creative expressions. Having consistent standards upon which teachers can "riff" would really go a long way to distinguishing good teachers from poor teachers, and provide better service to their "customers" by ensuring that they receive a more consistent service across their educational path.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

FAA and user fees

The current FAA funding bill runs out soon, and the FAA and Bush administration are pushing an airline-backed plan for a new funding model. OK, I'm a pilot, so let me back up and explain the background. Today, the FAA, which provides safety oversight and runs our air traffic control system (the safest and most efficient in the world, I might add), primarily out of three sources: (a) a tax on aviation fuel, (b) a tax on airline tickets, and (c) a contribution from the general fund (i.e., regular federal taxes kick some in). It's super efficient to collect, it's proportional to the usage (fly more - use more fuel or buy more tickets - pay more), and it's worked well for...ever.

The new proposal not only jacks up the tax on aviation fuel (which would make sense if the FAA were underfunded, which it isn't), but more significantly impose new "user fees" on a variety of FAA provided services, including (most notoriously) any service provided near a major metropolitan airport. Since most major population centers are near major metropolitan airports, this means that most services for most pilots would carry non-trivial itemized charges. And since many of these services are not optional, this would add considerable expense to flying for the same services that are provided with adequate funding today.

I generally don't buy lobbyist arguments without a healthy dose of qualification, but AOPA.org (the lobbying arm for the general aviation community) has a wealth of articles explaining why this proposal is an obscenely bad idea, that are pretty much on target.

Therefore, I won't go into depth here except to summarize the key arguments against it:
  • The FAA funding model isn't broken now, so why change it?
  • With a wide variety of fee-incurring events, the cost of billing pilots and collecting for services rendered becomes significant relative to the revenue collected, resulting in a far less efficient model
  • It raises the cost of flying for everyone, without any offered benefit.
  • It has supremely bad - and dangerous - incentives built in.
I can pretty simply explain the "dangerous incentives": if you're a pilot in the air and have a situation develop (emergency or not), I think we'd all agree that the right thing is for the pilot to worry about their safety first. At the moment, there is no incremental cost associated with diverting to an airport, requesting assistance from Air Traffic Control (ATC), or getting an in-flight weather update from flight service. But if a call to flight service would incur a $10 fee, pilots would have an incentive to avoid the call and might find themselves inside a thunderstorm. If diverting to the closest airport or practicing landings have incremental costs, then pilots will have bad incentives to make bad choices. Of course, with the current fuel-based taxes, the pilot has paid for the service before takeoff, so there's no counter-incentive to taking advantage of every safety option available.

The European model for funding aviation services is built mostly around user fees. The net result? Almost no aviation in Europe other than the airlines.

Which brings me to my point. The main lobbyists in favor of this plan have been the airlines. I spent 6 years in the travel industry, and I might not have learned much, but I can say this: the airlines are among the most irrational self-destructive self-worst-enemy businesses out there (with the possible exception of the RIAA), so if they want something it is almost certainly a bad idea. Case in point is the fact that the airlines, as a whole, have lost money since the inception of the business a century ago. (Southwest airlines is a notable exception, but I digress).

Anyhow, at the risk of venturing a bit into the world of conjecture, the airlines' primary goal is to shift some of their cost burden onto general aviation. For an industry that is notoriously bad at making money or providing customer service, this is a not unreasonable goal. And it has a nice side effect of reducing traffic from private pilots in what the airlines regard as "their" airspace.

However, it seems to me that the airlines should be wary of getting what they want. For if this proposal passes, we will surely see two changes in aviation: (a) general aviation pilots will make poor safety decisions due to goofy financial incentives, resulting in more accidents, and (b) partly due to the nickel-and-diming, the increased overall taxation, and the resultant decreased safety, fewer private pilots would fly.

Thus the airlines would almost certainly get their side effect (greatly reduced general aviation), but they are ignoring classic price elasticity economics: if the price of flying goes up, fewer pilots will fly, therefore the contribution from those pilots will decrease. What will be the net effect? The FAA will want to maintain its funding level, so it will raise its fees. This will squeeze yet more general aviation pilots out of the system. Yet the airlines don't have any choice about availing themselves of FAA services, so they will end up picking up the tab. And it will be even more expensive for them than it is today, because they will have greatly reduced the contribution to the FAA from general aviation, requiring them to pick up the slack. Ahhh...unintended consequences. Nope, that's never bitten the airlines before.

Ronald Reagan is quoted as saying that the scariest words in the English language are "Hello, I'm from the government and I'm here to help." I think that the proposed user fees are a case where we could adapt this aphorism as "I'm from the airlines, and I have a good idea." In either case, the best response is to run away.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Bus vs. driving

One of the things I really miss about Boston is the great public transportation. When I lived there, I would take the T everywhere. Always the subway, though - I've never been a bus person.

Lately, though, I've been riding the bus to work on days when I can (namely, if I don't need to drive somewhere mid-day, or if I can leave work in time to catch the last bus home). It's actually quite nice to do - there's a park-and-ride near my house, and an express bus that goes from the P&R to a stop that is one block away from work with only a single stop in between and no transfers.

When I take the bus, I leave the house at 7:30am, get to the P&R at 7:36, catch the bus at 7:39, and am at my office by approximately 8:08, 38 minutes door to door. Since the bus travels in the carpool lane, there is very little variability day-to-day in drive-time.

When I drive, I leave the house at the same time but go a more direct route. Inevitably, as a single-occupancy car, I get caught at the metered on-ramp to the highway and in traffic once I'm on the highway, but even with that, I am generally in the garage at work by 8, and in my office shortly thereafter. There is, of course, more variability in my drive time, but surprisingly driving is actually almost always about 5 minutes faster door-to-door, even accounting for typical mid-week traffic. (Of course, on some days the traffic is really bad, and it can take me close to an hour to drive home.)

I pay $3 for the round trip on the bus. I probably burn a gallon and a half of gas for the round trip in the car, so call it $4.50 to drive, so on days that I take the bus I'm saving a bit of pocket change and save the planet a little bit from the gas I don't burn.

I also pay $100/month for parking in my building because I need to drive 40-60% of days for one reason or another. That works out to about $5/workday, or about $10 on average for my driving days. Since parking for the day a-la-carte would be about $10/day, I break even on parking if I drive about half the days, which I do. Of course, since I can't ride the bus every day, I have to pay this regardless of whether I drive or ride the bus.

So economically, if I drive half of my workdays, I'm effectively paying $4.50 of marginal costs for my commute, vs. $3 for days when I ride the bus. (Yeah, yeah, there are lots of fixed costs associated with driving, but I'd be paying them regardless of whether or not I drive or take the bus, so it's not appropriate to include them in the comparison.)

So all in all, it's a pretty good deal for the bus: I save ~$1.50/day that I ride, I remove a car from the road for the day, and (most importantly) I can read or catch up on work while someone else drives. Obviously, if I ride the bus more, then my per day parking rate goes way up, if I ride the bus less, my per-day parking goes down.

The downsides? Only two, really: it's obviously way less flexible than driving (I can't ride the bus if I can't leave work promptly at 5ish or else I'll have a long commute with transfers to get home, I can't stop to pick up dinner or groceries, etc.), and it's a bit slower door-to-door than driving, even with traffic.

Of course, the fact that this is almost point-to-point for me helps a lot; for many people, taking the bus involves transfers and a significant walk. That, I think, is the key problem with public transportation: people won't use it without a critical mass of saturation/density is important.

So I'm a convert. Now I just wish they'd build a subway system out here, or something that would make it much easier and faster to get from where I live into and out of Seattle.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

And yet more evidence that the recording industry doesn't get it

And that they hate their customers. Now they want the right to commit fraud in the name of protecting their rights. Excuse me, but what exactly is it about pursuing copyright infringers that requires you to pretend that you're someone you're not? They're justification? "We're not talking about trying to go in and get customer information. In no case have we ever tried to do that." So essentially, it is "trust us", something that they are absolutely unwilling to do with their customers in the first place.

I've said it before: the recording industry hates its customers. If their business is shrinking, they need only look in the mirror to see why.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Great Op-ed in the NYT about the RIAA

Great article about how the recording industry has been shooting itself in the foot. I particularly love the use of the adjective "boneheaded" in the gray lady. It's so true.

EMI is making a very smart move - and I hope that they are rewarded for doing so. It's not too late.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Big oil vs alternatives? Doesn't make sense to me

Interesting article on CNET today about "Big Energy's alternative challenges." One of the observations here is that Exxon/Mobil sees no need to be investing in alternative energies; they see their future remaining in oil/gas.

"Know thyself" is of course critical to success, and Exxon is expressing self awareness about their core competencies (oil & gas), so I don't actually fault them this.

But where I do fault them is that I think they have a decision to make, and I don't think that they realize that they are failing to make that decision. Specifically, are they an energy company or an oil and gas company?

They seem to be divided on this; they position themselves as an energy company, but they stay in oil & gas. This is a recipe for long-term failure, I think; they should pick one or the other. If they are an energy company, then the goal is continuity and diversity of supply, and alternatives are not at all competitive; to an energy company, there is nothing inherently special about oil and gas - they happen pencil out as the most economical sources of energy today, but if that changes tomorrow, that's fine. They can still source their own oil and gas if it makes sense to do so. But notice that intrinsic in the qualifier "if it makes sense to do so" is the presumption that they do not have to be in the oil/gas business.

BP and Chevron have decided that they are energy companies - almost entirely hydrocarbon based today to be sure, but they are both positioning themselves to pounce upon any competitive technology that furthers their goals as energy companies; they're not ideological about it being oil.

If Exxon doesn't want to be an energy company, then they can certainly claim competence as an oil and gas company. But this implies a different set of priorities. An oil/gas company is all about supplying energy companies with oil and gas, and securing supplies and refining capacity is paramount. In this model, it does indeed make sense to forego investments in alternative energy sources, because those alternatives are in fact competitive with core business. The name of the game in oil/gas is efficiency and maintaining oil's economic edge over other sources of energy. And your goal is to sell as much product to as many people as possible, so one might legitimately ask why an oil/gas company would maintain its own retail network.

Either model can work just fine; I'm not trying to tell Exxon which is the right model for them. The problem as I see it is simply that Exxon is half pregnant, and half-pregnancies rarely result in happy outcomes. Energy companies need diversity of supply, but oil/gas companies want to be exclusive suppliers. These goals are inherently in conflict. Exxon ultimately needs to decide which it is.

Monday, April 02, 2007

It's a fine start!

EMI today announced that it will be selling songs from its collection without DRM. They cost more than the DRM'd songs ($1.29 vs. $0.99), but hey - they have high quality (256kbs vs. 128kbs for the cheap stuff) and no DRM. This is excellent, excellent news. I think it's a terrific model to price-differentiate on DRM and sound quality.

When this happens, I will make a point of buying as much EMI music as I can find that I like. Yes, buying - not sharing. Hear that Sony? Give customers what they want and you'll find that they'll actually pay for it.