Religious Education

Via Geographic Travels, a disturbing piece involving censorship of religious instruction in the US Army.

In a pluralistic society, where there are many religious voices and religious viewpoints, it is dangerous for any branch the United States federal government to censor religious voices it disagrees with for political reasons.

Bureaucracies are naturally self-interested, and the United States Army Chaplaincy decided to curry favor with political superiors by censoring a Bishop’s message.

Attacking great voluntary associations is a sign of hostility against civil society. In contemporary politics, Republicans are often hostile to universities while Democrats are too often hostile to churches.

Both churches and universities provide strength to our country. They are competitive spheres for association and action, unlike our stultified public schools system. Anyone who wants churches and universities to remain vigorous should support civil society, and oppose government censorship.

Education Around the Blogosphere

Yesterday was pretty cool because two bloggers I really respect took up some themes I introduced on this blog.

Zenpundit has an excellent article, “A Convo on Monopolies and Public Education,” in response to my earlier piece, “Monopoly!” As he states, “we draw different normative conclusions while agreeing on most points of fact, second order effects and political dynamics,” so it’s been fascinating. I’ll be replying soon — check it out!

But that’s not all! Catholicgauze is glad we’re not Krygyzstgan in his post “OCED 2009 Report on Student Performances,” which discusses my post, “Don’t Ignore the Poor.” Catholicgauze has often talked about the poor state of US geographical education, so education matters are close to his heart.

The Life Cycle of a Monopoly Enterprise

Every monopoly is born, lives, and dies.

First, a monopoly enterprise is born thru:

  • organic growth of one competitor
  • a trust between several competitors
  • an outside firm using cash to buy a monopoly position
    government fiat
  • a privatization of a governmental function

Standard Oil was created as a trust. China Mobile had originally been a branch of the government in China.

Second the monopoly enterprise acts like a monopoly by:

  • Enjoying economies of scale
  • Extracts economic profit
  • Experiences regulation by the political economic system, which itself requires the monopoly to:
    • flatter existing power-holdings
    • Assist other stakeholders in achieving their objectives
    • Avoid enraging any stakeholder that can kill the monopoly

I’ve previously discussed dangers that monopolies face.

Third, the monopoly enterprise loses monopoly status and capitulates. This can be because of:

  • Not understanding the market
  • Not being empathetic to other stakeholders

The unpopularity of the term “monopoly” comes from this process of capitulation from a consumer’s perspective.

Following capitulation, the monopoly might be

  • Broken up into multiple successor firms
  • Reduced to single competitor firm in a market
  • Incorporated into the government

At some point in their history, Hudson’s Bay Company and General Motors both operated as monopolies, and all have now been reduced to being single competitors in their respective markets. AT&T used to be a monopoly and was broken up into several successor firms.

Don’t ignore the poor

Every three years, the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) conducts the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) to evaluate student achievement in many countries.

Because US schools are terrible, US students do badly on the tests. As shown in the below chart, the US is not in the top ten in either math, science, and reading.

One reason for this is that the US education system is not designed for the US population. As shown in this blog posts, US scores are acceptble if you ignore the poor — that is, “correct” for poverty. Of course, reality does not work that way — you can’t “correct” a population by ignoring it. You serve a population by writing curriculum and hiring teachers that are effective in addressing a population’s needs.

By writing off districts with poor students, US education policy does not only harm poor students — it harms all students in schools that are stressed by the presence of students from poor and low-performing populations.

Solving education does not have to wait till we win the “war on poverty.” The poor and the middle class deserve education too, even if they can’t afford to mortgage their futures to get it.


My friend Mark Safranski leads a dual life online, running the fantastic honest-broker site Zenpundit that focuses on military-security issues, and critiquing education reform on twitter from the perspective of a labor activist. Recently on twitter Mark made the following comment [edited to account for twitter’s telegraphic character limit):

There will be no evaluation of test quality, barring a PR disaster. Education publishers are dividing the market – i.e. forming a cartel – not competing.

I think the general principle behind this comment is that any organization in a monopoly position is unconcerned with quality. This viewpoint is generally held, and wrong.

Monopolies differ from other competitors in three primary ways:

1. They are able to exploit massive economies of scale
2. They are able to extract an “economic profit” from their business
3. They are regulated by the political-economic system, rather than just by its subset, the economic system

“Economy of scale” refers to the decreasing per-unit costs experienced when a given fixed cost is split over a larger production run. This is a well known concept, and I won’t talk more about it here.

“Economic profit” refers to the difference between the revenues of the firm and the total costs (including opportunity costs) of a firm. Under perfect competition in settled markets, economic profit is impossible, because the presence of economic profits would simply drive more competitors to enter a market until the economic profit returned to zero. That is, if it is worthwhile to be in a market, someone will jump in, making it no longer worthwhile. Because monopolies create barriers to entry into a market, they are able to earn an economic profit in the long-term.

The third point is the most important here. All firms can fail by lack of understanding — that is, thru the economic system — whether they are monopolies or not. Both GM (a monopoly) and Wang Laboratories (not a monopoly) saw their position decline because of terrible product and marketing decisions. While monopolies have a greater buffer and farther to fall (because of their economies of scale and economic profits), sustained stupidity can still do the monopoly in.

Monopolies, however face an additional risk. They can fail by lack of empathy. A monopoly that fails to flatter sources of political power can be broken through political means, regardless of economic realities. The Bell Systems, for example, flouted the ideal of unregulated competition (thus alienating a radicalized political right) at the same time they were a major supporter of hard sciences research and engineering (thus alienating a radicalized political left). Even though AT&T consistently understood the market’s desire for a reliable, predictable, and always-on communication layer undergirding business, AT&T’s monopoly was destroyed due to their lack of empathy.

In the education sector, the monopoly held by teachers front organizations. By failing to provide the services they were supposed to provide — educating the young  — the teachers drove parents into debt, employers into the immigration debate, and States into powerlessness over education policy, teachers displayed a lack of empathy. This unconcern for the well-being of other stakeholders has consequences.

Publishers are as self-interested and greedy as teachers. They also, like teachers, aspire to monopoly bargaining power. But this does not mean that publishers won’t create tests, evaluate tests, or even improve tests.

Ultimately, the correct way to view the publishers v. teachers debate is structural. Teachers are focused primarily in protecting the interests of the teaching labor force, and as such are hostile to techniques that would cause some teachers to lose their jobs or miss out on pay increases. Publishers are focused primarily in protecting the interests of shareholders and management, and are thus indifferent to the quality of teachers or tests.

I’ll take indifferent over hostility any day.

High-Stakes Testing is a Mistake

Too often, the education reform debate is split between two sides

1. Teachers, whose primary interest is diverting school funds from student welfare and to themselves, and
2. Everyone else, who are flabbergasted by the terrible US public education system,

I’m simplifying of course — there are three dimensions of fource and multiple stakeholders, but the American public school teachers as a class have been breathtakingly unconcerned with the needs of others for several generations. Still, understanding that teachers have done nothing to align their interests with other stakeholders (aside from one political party) and act like an abusive monopoly is important to understand the education reform debate.

Unfortunately, these two sides then break down as disagreeing on the issue of testing:

1. Testing should not be used
2. High stakes testing should be used

Teachers oppose testing because they do not want to be accountable for not doing their jobs. This is understandable, but of course dangerous to our nation.

Many education reformers support high stakes testing, because it is easy to politically & logistically easy implement. Unfortunately, testing is invalid to the extent that testing conditions different from desired recall conditions, and if we’re training students to only ‘know’ something in high-stakes pen-and-paper environments, we’re doing them a disservice.

It would be better to fully integrate testing into the curriculum. A personalized device (let’s call it a Skinner Machine, or an iPad) would work with the student to help him understand concepts, show him appropriate & challenging material, and of course continually assess his learning. Low-stakes, continuous, real-world.

Low-stakes and continuous testing would be a form of good testing that would be reliable, standard, valid, and practical. We don’t have them because writing good tests is hard, and teachers are opposed to testing for economic reasons. So as the hard work is getting the testing infrastructure set-up in the first place, high-stakes testing is better than no-testing in the context of the terrible status quo. But good testing — low-stakes and continuous — must be the next step.


That’s how testing should be done.

The Pillars of the Central Actors in the Education Reform Debate

A recent interaction with Michael Josefowicz on twitter made me think of how old some of the components of the two platforms on which American education rested and rests — the Teachers Front Organizations and the Federal-Academic Complex — are. Wikipedia gives some dates:

Federal-Academic Complex

Teachers Front Organizations

It is interesting that the oldest pillar of the Federal-Academic Complex is (the NIH, established in 1930) is younger than the youngest pillar of the Teachers Front Organizations (the AFT, established in 1916). Doubtless the many years of monopoly control over education enjoyed by Teachers Front Organizations have contributed to their lack of empathy.

Cloud Power!

I lost my Kindle yesterday, and while I since found it, the incident made me take seriously the different “clouds” I use. I regularly use clouds made by three companies — but Amazon’s and Microsoft’s clouds don’t fully integrate with themselves, and Apple’s doesn’t play nicely with other folks Amazon Cloud Player, Audible
Apple: iTunes
Microsoft: SkyDrive, Zune

Amazon’s cloud let me continue reading and listening where I left off — but I can’t stream my Amazon CloudPlayer mp3s to my Kindle, and I can’t use the CloudPlayer interface to play my Audible files

Apple’s cloud let me redownload music that I had lost during an old computer crash, but the format was m4p, which is not standard and doesn’t work on players made by other companies

Amazon SkyDrive lets me upload from (But not download too) Windows Photo Gallery. Likewise, Mp3s I buy thru Zune are not automatically placed on SkyDrive.

When I purchase MP3s from Amazon MP3 Store, I download them from Amazon CloudDrive on my other computers to play with Zune. When I buy from Zune, I use the Amazon CloudPlayer upload utility to automatically put them into CloudPlayer, and from there download them to my other PC (which also uses Zune Player).

The network revoloution that is brining us Clouds and media-rich smart devices (phones, tablets, e-readers, etc) is amazing, but I don’t think any vendor has a final solution out yet.

It’s a fun time to be a geek! 🙂