Thursday, September 18, 2008

Book Report: Earth: The Sequel

I just finished reading Earth: The Sequel. Global warming has not been at the top of my worry agenda, but energy has been for a while (and I figure if we solve energy then global warming will take care of itself). The climate change crowd has been arguing loudly for a cap-and-trade system to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, while the global warming deniers and other folks (primarily on the conservative side of the spectrum) worry that a cap-and-trade system would be way too much cost to the economy without any clear benefit. I've largely stayed out of that particular debate because there's so much unprovable speculation on each side. Reading this book provided concrete evidence and persuasive arguments for what I've suspected at a gut level for a long time: the argument about cap-and-trade misses the point.

In particular, there is so much opportunity for clean, affordable, renewable sources of energy and efficiency that have barely been tapped because cheap oil was so hard to compete with. But with expensive oil (it's currently down below $100/barrel, but I don't expect that to last), tapping these sources become not only feasible but downright profitable. And with a cap-and-trade system, the simple addition into the economic equation of a price for carbon provides a very tangible economic incentive to make the switch.

Cap-and-trade provides a great opportunity to lower emissions (makes the environmentalists happy), make a ton of money (makes the free-market types happy, despite their current claims to the contrary), and have a meaningful reduction in our dependence on oil, foreign or domestic (should make everyone except Exxon happy). Win-win-win opportunities like this are rare, it would be a shame to squander this.

Bush has not seen things this way, but both McCain and Obama do. I'm optimistic.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

"Beyond Oil"

I just spent two days over the past week at a conference hosted on the Microsoft campus called "Beyond Oil". Its purpose was to discuss how we can successfully wean our transportation system from oil in the coming decades in a manner that is cost effective, sustainable (from both a fuel-source perspective as well as from an environmental perspective), and which enables the economy to grow. This is an area that I have been thinking a lot about (including my recent post on the need to electrify the transportation system, a point that was reiterated a lot at the conference).

This wasn’t a greenie conference, it wasn’t an alarmist liberal “global warming is going to kill us all”, nobody was talking about people sacrificing and conserving (though a lot of people talked about efficiency); it was all about how we can sustainably support our (global) growing economy and energy needs. There were more entrepreneurs starting companies and deploying technology than any other group. There were a number of people who focus on policy, as well as a number of politicians from both sides of the aisle, including Washington Governor Christine Gregoire, former senator Slade Gorton, and former CIA director James Woolsey (who talked about the national security implications of shifting trillions of dollars a year to folks like Chavez, Ahmadinijad, and the Saudis). There were academics, researchers, utilities, and mass transit operators. And thankfully, the discussions were all remarkably non-political and non-partisan. (Heck, both Obama and McCain got credit for actually recognizing the issues here and for both having reasonable approaches.)

What got me most excited was all of the talk about plug-in hybrid electric vehicles ("PHEV"), which are just like regular hybrids except that they have bigger batteries which you can plug into a wall socket to charge. I shouldn't say "talk," because there were a number of converted PHEVs on display, ranging from small cars to pickup trucks and even a converted PHEV school bus! The huge advantage of these vehicles is that on a full charge you can go 30-40 miles before the gasoline engine kicks in (at which point you behave like a regular hybrid). Given that most people drive less than 20 miles each way to/from work for most of their driving, a PHEV enables people to do most of their driving entirely on electricity (especially if they can also plug in at work). This can result in real mileage of 150-200mpg. And when you divide the cost of the battery pack by it's expected lifetime miles and add in electricity at $0.10-0.15/kWh, the cost to go a mile on electricity is only about 5-7 cents per mile. At $4/gallon, a 25mpg car costs 16 cents per mile, and that's not even factoring in the cost of the engine. The technology works well for larger cars as well as smaller (although larger cars obviously require a larger battery pack and more charge), which represents an easy way to dramatically improve mileage. There are a number of PHEV conversion kits available for existing hybrids, and the first mass-produced PHEVs should be hitting the streets in the next two years, led by the Chevy Volt.

One other nice thing about PHEVs is that they are mostly charged at night, which is when electric utilities normally have the lightest loads, so there is actually enough spare capacity in today's existing grid to handle substantial PHEV fleet penetration. Adding to this advantage is the fact that we are deploying more and more wind farms nationwide, and the wind tends to blow the most at night when demand is weakest; PHEVs, thus, provide a nice storage mechanism for wind (or other intermittant renewable) power that might otherwise go unused.

I learned a ton over the two days, and came away with a feeling that, while we obviously have major challenges ahead of us, there is a tremendous amount of opportunity here to innovate, make money, and move towards diversified fuel sources for our transportation needs.

I had 3 other observations as a result of the conference:
  • It was pointed out numerous times that oil has a monopoly as a fuel for transportation today, and that electrification is key. I obviously agree with this (per my earlier post), but I want to reiterate that the critical benefit of electrification is that it is fuel neutral. Liquid-fuel engines are very sensitive to variations in the formulation of their fuel - you can greatly damage an airplane engine that runs on aviation gasoline by putting automotive gasoline in it, for example, even though the two fuels are virtually the same. But an electric engine, while sensitive to getting the right amount of voltage and current, does not care how the electricity was generated. You can create the electricity by burning coal, splitting atoms, or having gerbils run in cages; it simply doesn't matter. And that, in the long term, is the key reason that I believe electricity to be critical.
  • Emerging economies such as China and India, who are still developing their infrastructures, are surely looking at how to leapfrog an oil-based infrastructure. Think about what happened with telecommunications in developing countries: most of the 3rd world bypassed land-line telephones and went straight to cellular networks. It is my belief (and worry) that countries like India and China will do a similar leap-frog with transportation, and deploy an electrical infrastructure in their countries before we do in ours. I say "worry" not because I think this would be a bad thing for them; on the contrary, it would be wonderful, and I believe they are quite capable of doing it. I say "worry" because I worry that the United States will be a follower, not a leader. The leading wind companies today are in Denmark. The leading solar companies are Chinese. Given what a huge part of the world economy transportation and transportation infrastructure is, it would be a shame for the US to be anything other than a leader in electrified transportation, but I worry that this is in fact the direction we are headed.
  • The whole debate about off-shore drilling completely misses the point. We are going to end up drilling, there's no way for us to avoid it (although frankly, I'd rather wait to do it until after we've finished draining the Saudi/Venezualan/Iranian oil...). So score one for the republicans. But anyone who thinks that drilling will solve anything - especially prices at the pump - is delusional. Demand is growing so fast and the pace of new discoveries is so slow that any incremental supply provided by coastal or ANWR oil will simply help to meet that demand, not provide any of the supply cushion that would be necessary for prices to actually fall. President Bush has said we are addicted to oil. He's right. But the answer to addiction is not to find lower cost drugs or to get more drugs. It's to figure out how to diversify so that you don't have a single critical-source dependency.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Merit pay for teachers

I was listening to a discussion on the radio yesterday about the pros and cons of merit pay for teachers. I think that much of the conversation missed the point, which is precisely the sort of thing that motivates me to post here.

The usual debate about merit pay seems to typically include the following arguments.

In favor of merit pay:
  • Not all teachers are the same; we should be paying teachers more if they are more effective, and paying less (and removing from the system) teachers who are not effective.
  • We want to attract good teachers by showing that they can advance and earn more money by being more effective.
  • We want to provide incentives for teachers to go the extra mile with their students by having rewards for it. Absent this, the motivated teacher and the teacher who does the bare minimum get paid the same, which is a strong dis-incentive to put in the extra effort.
...and against:
  • There is no strictly objective/unbiased way to measure teacher effectiveness.
  • Using test scores (or improvement in test scores) has a variety of negative unintended consequences, including teacher cheating, teaching to the test (and all of its related issues, which I won't go into here), and attracting teachers to the best students at the expense of the needy students (if overall test scores are the metric) or to the needy students at the expense of the best students (if test score improvement is the metric).
  • Classes have wide variances in student achievement, readiness to learn, socio-economic status, behavioral issues, learning disabilities, etc.
  • Merit pay hurts morale and teamwork among teachers because they are aware of differences in pay and because they are competing for a larger share of a fixed budget in what is essentially a zero-sum game (i.e., one teacher's merit pay increase decreases the remaining pool for other teachers, thus it comes out of those other teachers' pockets.)
  • No principal can spend enough time in each classroom to truly see how well the teachers are actually doing.
  • Merit pay "just doesn't work" for teaching: teaching is somehow different from other professions. (On caller on the radio show compared them to physicians and made the point that we don't have merit pay for physicians for similar reasons.)
I have been thinking about this a lot over the past few days, and I simply cannot persuade myself that the "against" arguments - though more numerous - outweigh the "for" arguments. In particular, while I think the "against" arguments raise good and important issues - not to be brushed aside - I think none are insurmountable, nor are they sufficient to dissuade me that merit pay is a good idea.

The biggest objection boils down to the lack of strictly objective/unbiased mechanisms for evaluating teacher performance without having the unintended consequences (mentioned above) of things like test scores. This objection is completely accurate, but I think it misses the point. It is letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. There isn't a workplace in the world that evaluates employee performance, where employees are professionals who must exercise professional judgment (i.e., not simply assembling widgets on an assembly line) that is strictly objective, and yet almost every such professional environment evaluates employee performance successfully, if imperfectly. If you go into any such environment - including schools - and ask employees to identify the stars and the dead weight, and you will inevitably find extreme consistency in the answers you get. This is one reason that many workplaces employ 360-degree feedback as part of the evaluation process. If the employees themselves can do this with such a high degree of consistency, then clearly evaluation is possible, even if it is imperfect.

In fact, I believe that an imperfect, subjective evaluation is superior to a strict "objective" evaluation because with no flexibility, no room for subjectivity, there is also no room to recognize outstanding performance or innovation that is outside of the bounds of what the "objective" metric measures. Stated another way: principals are professionals. We as parents make a big deal about good principals vs. bad principals, we are clearly evaluating them, and we are expecting them to make a difference in their schools and to use their judgment in doing so. One of the most critical aspects of a principal's professional judgment is to decide how the teachers in their school are doing. So we are explicitly paying a principal to evaluate teachers - why would we want to then make that evaluation meaningless by refusing to let that evaluation feed back into financial rewards?

I should also note that evaluations - including peer evaluations like this - are used quite successfully in many private sector workplaces without negatively affecting teamwork or morale, so I see no reason to suspect that it would suffer that fate in schools.

The argument against the use of test scores also misses the point for similar reasons. If classroom test scores (or improvement in scores) were the only metrics, then indeed it would be gamed by teachers and schools would suffer the unintended consequences described above. But this is where evaluation requires less mechanical (yikes - this means potentially imperfect and, gasp, subjective!) evaluation metrics. Goals should be set against situations. The goals for a teacher in a gifted students class absolutely should be different than the goals for a teacher in an inner-city classroom of troubled students who are reading 3 grades below grade level. It is crazy to suggest that simple test scores work as a metric for both environments, but they can and should be part of the picture. The former will - among other goals - be looking for a modest improvement in already good test scores, while the latter is doing great if they can improve scores to something closer to expectations.

And let me quickly dispense with the notion that merit pay "just doesn't work for teachers". First of all, this is an assertion without evidence to suggest why teachers are different, and why that unidentified difference is incompatible with pay-for-performance. And the analogy with professionals such as physicians fails because they do have merit pay: the good physicians get lots of referrals (or positions at hospitals etc.), and their business grows. The bad physicians get lawsuits.

Now just because I believe that merit pay makes sense does not mean that any merit pay plan makes sense. I believe that there are 2 ingredients to successful merit pay:
  • The objection above that principals do not spend enough time in classrooms is a true danger: to successfully have merit pay, a school must ensure that there is enough time for principals (and other teachers, parents, and even students) to observe and evaluate (and give feedback on) teacher performance. And it is critical to calibrate goals for each teacher based on that teacher's situation. We don't want to penalize teachers for taking harder challenges, nor reward teachers who take on "easy" classes. Test scores are certainly a piece of this, but must not be the only factor in evaluations.
  • Money must actually be available for superior teachers. My personal opinion on this is that it is a mistake to modify salary based on performance, primarily due to the long-term impact that a "good" evaluation year or a "bad" evaluation year can have on a teacher's subsequent pay. Rather, there should be an annual bonus pool, and evaluations should lead to bonus drawn from that pool. Each year's performance would determine that year's bonus; at the start of the next year, all teachers would be back at the same starting point, with an equal chance at that year's bonus. But whether done by salary or by bonus, school districts cannot implement merit pay without actually funding it.
I believe that if these two issues are successfully addressed, then teachers have nothing to fear and even much to gain from merit pay.

The presidential tickets

I watched Sarah Palin's speech last night. I agree with her on some issues, disagree on others, but overall I thought she gave a great speech, is clearly comfortable in her skin, and knows what she stands for.

I think this is going to be an interesting race. We have an interesting matchup. None of the candidates is scary (assuming you ignore the blogosphere's various scare-tactic rumors). Palin is inexperienced, Obama is inexperienced. McCain is experienced, Biden is experienced (although I confess I find Biden to be singularly uninspiring.) 3 senators, who are notoriously bad at executive skills, and one governor, which is historically the best job to have prior to being president. Palin seems to have a bit of a history of holding grudges against those who cross her politically, which I believe to be one of the big problems with the current Bush administration, and that gives me a little pause, especially since her politics are a lot more right-wing than I am generally comfortable with.

I think Obama is the best "leader" of the bunch, in terms of sheer charisma, followed by Palin. I trust McCain more on foreign policy, frankly. He's stuck to his guns on Iraq, and whether or not you think the war was a mistake, the fact is that security has been improving and that's a good thing we should be building on.

I confess that I have not yet made up my mind for whom I'm going to vote. Usually it's a no-brainer for me - in most elections, the prospect of one candidate's presidency is so frightening that I vote for the other candidate. But in this one nobody scares me at that level. It's about policy and philosophy, and with both sides there are policies where I say "right on" and policies where I shake my head in bewilderment as to what on earth they're thinking.

Which is how it should be. I have to make a real choice based on real issues. I'm looking forward to it.