Sunday, January 30, 2011

How About A Longer School Year?

Taking a step back from the budget, I want to return to the topic of how to improve the education of our children: have the various BOEs ever considered lengthening the school year?  I don't know if it's the panacea for all that ails our educational system, but we might want to consider it.  As you are no doubt aware, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) found that for 2009 the US once again ranks in the lower middle of the pack when it comes to reading and below average in math and science (for complete PISA results, see 2009 PISA Results).  And this is despite the US continuing to spend more per pupil than nearly any country on earth (secondary school per pupil spending) and despite the fact that US teachers are the highest paid on earth (for teacher average salaries by country see: Teacher Salaries By Country).

Given that many of the countries who outscore us on PISA appear to have longer school years, perhaps that is something that should be looked into?  Extending it to something like 200 days (as in Australia) or 220 days (as in Germany) should be possible without much additional cost to the township (in my simple view, teacher and most administrative positions are already paid for, so the main additional costs would be running the buses and keeping the building open).

Of course, in my mind, accountability and performance based pay should stand first and foremost in improving our children's education.  I find it pretty strange that a society which preaches capitalism and the power of the free market, should shield the members of the educational institution from its power.  In a free market, only the best teachers would educate our children - and at the lowest possible cost.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A UPS For Your Home - Your Car!

A couple years ago I heard some University wonk talk about the future of the electric grid, and the dude had a couple amazing ideas that I was just reminded of as I read about the latest electric cars being shown at the Detroit Auto Show.

Imagine you had a plugin hybrid or electric vehicle.  Every night when you get home, you plug it in so it is fully charged for the following day.  Now imagine that your car was plugged into your house in such a way that when there's a blackout, your home's electricity could temporarily come from the battery in your car!  Sort of like the UPS' we attach our computers to in order to insulate them from the instabilities in our electrical grid.  Neat, eh?

It gets better.  Imagine your car was a hybrid and its engine could keep the battery charged while it's supplying the house.  Now you can avoid the dark for at least as long as your car has gas!  And, if you so chose, you could even feed ("sell") any excess power back into the public grid, potentially also helping your neighbor keep the lights on.

Now, let's scale the idea.  Imagine that lots and lots of your neighbors had the same setup and imagine that you all have some deal with the power company that they can, during a severe power shortage, automatically start your engines (or at least start drawing power from your batteries) to help avoid brownouts.  The grid becomes a self-healing distributed network of energy producers!

Having one's car battery act as a store of energy is also very enticing to those folks who simply want to become independent from the grid.  I've, on several occasions, investigated adding solar power to my home.  Since solar power is obviously time-of-day dependent (just like wind), most solar home owners can't really go "off-grid" because they need a way to keep the lights on at night and adding batteries to a solar installation is a large added cost.  In most states, the power company is required to buy your daytime excess electricity, effectively becoming one large-ass battery for your solar installation.  So that is fine - most of the time.  If there happens to be a blackout during the night, you're out of luck.  Electric/hybrid car batteries can provide this grid independence!

The above can all be done today - all the technologies exist.  Neat, eh?

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Most Honorable Professions?

I grew up thinking that the most honorable and desirable professions  were those which contributed the most to society.  To me, this included artist, doctor, engineer, lawyer, police officer, scientist, and teacher.  Many of these careers required years of often expensive education, so I thought the high pay in these professions was justified.  I thought everyone around me believed the same things.

It was this belief - and an intense interest in computers - that led me into an engineering career.

Fast-forward 20 years.  I still think that the most honorable careers are those who give back the most to society.  But my list has changed.  While I still think highly of artists, doctors, engineers, and scientists, my list now excludes lawyer, police officer, and...teacher.  Why?

Growing up in Germany, I thought of attorneys as people dedicated to protecting the rights of individuals accused of committing crimes.  Civil law suits (where individuals sued one another over some perceived wrong) were a rare thing.  So, there weren't that many lawyers - it was a pretty "exotic" profession which required *many* years of learning beyond high school.  Then I came to America - home of 95% of the world's lawyers with only 5% of the world's population.

Why are there so many lawyers in this country?  Americans don't appear criminally more inclined than folks in the rest of the world.  The answer is obvious: a system of law that encourages litigation.  In the U.S. there is no risk to suing someone: if you feel wronged by your neighbor or, more likely, by some corporation, simply hire a lawyer on "contingency" - if the lawyer convinces a jury (which can be swayed by emotional appellations rather than facts), he gets 30% of the damage awards; if he does not, you walk away with no costs.  Such a system encourageed a new breed of greedy lawyer: the "ambulance chaser" - an individual who finds citizens that have been bodily (or mentally) harmed and convinces them that another individual or, more profitably, a company is to blame and needs to be sued to compensate "the victim" for the incurred damage.

Why do we have such a system of law?  I have not researched the subject, but I suspect the answer lies somewhere in Americans' individualism.  We have always prided ourselves on our ability to succeed on our own and have always had a healthy apprehension towards "the man".  Initially, "the man" was the British Empire.  Then it was the government (maybe because it taxed us excessively) and companies (because it took advantage of its workers).  A system of law developed which was geared towards protecting individuals' rights.  For instance, unlike most other european courts, where cases where decided (and damage awards given) by one or more judges, in America, we're allowed to be judged by a jury of our peers.  I imagine this was deemed a good idea in the early days of the nation because judges were likely to side with or be bought by "the man".  This solution was a decent one in the early days of our nation, when the laws themselves were simple and the types of cases brought in front of juries were as well.  But today, the jury system no longer works well: although jury members still try to be just in their determination of guilt, they're too often swayed by emotional appeals and their traditional dislike of "rich corporations" when deciding damage awards.  So why haven't we changed the system?  Well, because the folks that decide these things, congress, is swayed by a very large, very-well connected lobby: lawyers.

And that is why the law profession, at least in this country,  has become a dishonorable one: instead of helping to improve society, it is slowly destroying it.

Police Officers
Unlike the law profession, my view of the police had taken on a negative slant before I ever set foot on American soil.  As a young lad, I saw the honor in police officers protecting the citizens from criminals - I saw them as the catchers of the bad guys.  As a teenager, I began to see other sides: police officers as blind tools of government (e.g. to squash - sometimes violently - peaceful demonstrations) as well as uneducated/racist police officers abusing their power.

But my view of the profession was not cemented until I came to the U.S.  It is here that I experienced police officers' "selective" administration of the law: whoever said "justice is blind" obviously has never been a resident of New Jersey, where police officers regularly cite civilians for traffic violations that they, themselves, violate (ever experienced a NJ State Trooper passing you at 90-100mph without siren or lights - obviously in pursuit of a donut, rather than a bad guy?); where police officers rack up "overtime" while during their regular work hours they sit parked in parking lots, texting and chatting it up with their friends; where most police officers somehow arranged themselves six-figure incomes (276 out of 316 police officers in Edison, NJ, make over $100k base salary!); where police officers stuff their last year before retirement with overtime because their pension is based on their last year's salary (there are many cases of police officers with six-figure pensions when during their careers, they never earned more than half that!); where police officers are found to have committed crimes with the knowledge of their colleagues (the "Blue Wall of Silence").

While I totally understand that most police officers began their careers with the same noble goals for which I admired them as a child, the level of corruption within today's police departments convinced me to take the profession off my "most honorable" list.

This is probably the saddest case of all, because I still very much admire the profession.  How can I not: teachers have prepared me for life and I still greatly admire most of them.  But I just don't respect the profession anymore. And I'm not even sure why!

When I grew up, teachers were deeply respected people.  Not only did they seem to have great knowledge in their respective fields, but they also exuded professionalism and authority.  I remember several of my early teachers always caming to work with a shirt and tie.  And I remember several teachers disciplining misbehaving kids - and parents apologizing to the teachers for their child's infraction.

Again, fast forward 20 years.  The teaching profession is not very respected.  Why?  There are many reasons: under educated and/or under-motivated and/or over-paid and/or corrupt teachers, parents who have abdicated their parentel  responsibilites, forcing teachers to spend time parenting rather than teaching.  But, most of the blame, I think, belongs with the "business" of education:  administrators, unions, and politicians who, through their corruptness, made the educational system a bloated, inefficient mess.

Under-educated teachers.  It is difficult to respect an English teacher who can't spell or write a grammatically correct sentence or a science teacher who espouses outdated theories.  I have encountered such teachers - and not just once.

Under-motivated teachers.  I think everyone has experienced the occasional teacher who just seems to be biding their time until retirement.  The kind of teacher that prefers to show videos and self-study activities over actively teaching.  The problem is that these types of teachers are no longer rare. Due to tenure rules, it has become next to impossible to fire even grossly under-motivated or ineffective teachers.  They just stay on the payroll, under-educating our children.

Overpaid teachers.  Although over-compensation is much more prevalent on the administrative side of the education system, the allocation of pay among teachers is grossly unjust.  Instead of rewarding good teachers and punishing bad ones, pay is allocated purely by seniority: the longer you stay in the system, the higher your pay - even if you're a lousy teacher. Worse yet, when there is an occasional layoff due to budget issues, tenure rules dictate that the least senior teachers are let go before the more senior ones - again, without regard to teaching performance.  The result is an inefficient school system: too many highly paid teachers and too few good ones.

Corrupt Teachers.  The fact that tenured teachers are next to impossible to let go, gives the teacher power.  Some become corrupted by it.  I have heard many horror stories, but a recent one sticks out as particularly egregious: there's a tenured math teacher in one NJ township who somehow managed to get her recently-graduated son hired as a substitute math teacher in her school.  To help her son out, she regularly calls in "sick" or takes days off in order to give her son an opportunity to substitute for her!  There are so many levels to this corruption it's hard to comprehend.  There was nepotism getting the son hired; there the total lack of morals on the teacher herself; and there's the continued consent of this activity by the school's administration.

Parents, too self-absorbed with their careers and wealth-accumulation or fighting for financial survival (because taxes are high when you have to provide for the salaries of 25-30% of the population in public employ),
have too little time left to be parents for their kids. Children who aren't taught respect, values,  and discipline by their parents need to now be taught these things exclusively at school.  This, of course, means less time is spent on academics.  The parents, of all people, then blame the teachers for not teaching enough.

Finally, the whole educational system in this country is bloated and fraught with corruption, nepotism, an cronyism.  I won't go into the gory details here as I have blogged about it in my April 2010 blog and the corruption is well documented in the film "The Cartel: Education + Politics = $", but suffice it to say that through "guilt by association", this corrupt and overbloated system reflects extremely poorly on the teaching profession.

I still respect and admire individual teachers, but the corrupt nature of New Jersey's educational system has left me wondering how honorable the overall profession is.  Even if most of the misdeeds outlined here are perpetrated not by teachers but by the administrators in the educational system and politicians, how can truly honorable teachers stand by and allow them to happen?

Tuesday, January 4, 2011


Yesterday I was driving home, listening to NPR and Bloomberg (listening to NPR marks me by some as a liberal and listening to Bloomberg, I suppose, as a conservative...or at least a capitalist :-), when I came across a segment on notable deaths of 2010.  Among them, Alexander Haig, former secretary of state under the Reagan administration.  Now, normally, I would have not paid it much heed - since I'm not a fan of Ronald Reagan (I guess another mark in the "liberal" column) - but NPR played an excerpt from an interview with Haig in 2002, in which Haig said something very interesting and unexpected regarding the fall of the Soviet Union and Marxism:
To declare the Cold War over, and declare democracy has won out over totalitarianism, is a measure of arrogance and wrong-headedness. And if you look back at a lot of our problems today, it's the direct product of that baloney about the new world order and why Marxism collapsed. It wasn't that their values were defeated by our values; it was our system that defeated theirs, the market economy.

I thought this was particularly insightful: he separates the values inherent in the two ideologies (socialism vs. capitalism) from the economic systems that grew out of those ideologies.  The "free market" (put in quotes, since the recent government bailouts make it abundantly clear that our markets aren't that "free" after all) just happened to be more efficient than the state-run system the Soviets created in their Marxist pursuit.  It says nothing about the values underlying the two ideologies.  Haig, himself, said that the jury is very much still out on that.

So what exactly are our values today?  What do we stand for?  I don't know.  Do you?  A likely answer might include some of the values enshrined in our Bill of Rights - e.g. the freedom (to do various things).  Everybody remembers values that "give".  It is much less likely that the answer might include Constitutionally enshrined values that involve personal responsibility: e.g. the responsibility to vote - i.e. the responsibility to be involved in the democracy that gives us those freedoms.

Today, the U.S. (and, to a lesser extent, most capitalist economies in the world) has become an economically divided country: the "haves" own more than ever and the "have nots" own less than ever before (the statistic I heard is that 5% of the people own 80+% of all the wealth & property in this country - staggering, isn't it?)  And things are getting worse, rather than better: the politicians who make our laws increasingly ignore the "have nots" - since they don't make campaign "contributions" or have lobbyists wining and dining them or offering high-paying jobs after their political careers are over; the "have-nots" also don't vote much (they're either busy holding down two jobs or are just content to be entertained by TV or the latest techno gadgets - if I were of a paranoid bend (ok, so I am), I might suggest that TV/sports/entertainment/the lottery are a tool of the elite to keep the masses docile).

What is the root cause of these problems?  It's greed.  Although greed is great as a motivator (thus the success of the "free market"), unfettered it can be limitless and, ultimately, lead to corruption.  So, unless you're a communist or socialist, we need to find a balance that takes advantage of the motivating aspects of greed but, at the same time, holds it at bay at the extremes.  How much wealth should a society bestow on a minority without harming the majority - to incentivize the majority to join the minority?  Unfortunately, nobody in the US (and, to a lesser extent, in the rest of the world) seems interested in achieving a healthy balance.

So is the only real value we can demonstrate today greed?

Think about it the next time you admire a baseball player "earning" hundreds of millions of dollars or a CEO who gets a multi-million dollar bonus for "right-sizing" his company; the next time a banker gets rich while getting bailed out with tax payer money; the next time you decide to watch a TV show rather than investigate or vote on the issues facing your government; the next time you hear a politician lie through his teeth to get re-elected.

Think about it.