Monday, October 26, 2009

Detroit Needs Teach For America

I'm considering applying for Teach for America after I graduate, so I have been doing a decent amount of research on the program, and the other day I discovered a troubling story.

The Backstory

In 2001, Teach for America came to Detroit. Student enrollment dropped, and teacher layoffs became necessary. Naturally, some argue, the newest teachers with the least seniority were the first in line to get the axe. In 2004, Detroit's 34 Teach for America teachers left.

Detroit Schools' Decline

It's apparent to anyone following the situation that Detroit schools have been on a steady decline for a very long time. Want visual proof? Check out this info-graphic from the Wall Street Journal, depicting the 50% drop in enrollments over the past decade.

It's not a pretty picture. But that's just the enrollment. The poor student performance is even more shocking. The school district reports that 58% of it's students graduate, but the real numbers are probably much lower. A study by the Alliance for Excellent Education estimates that less than 25% graduate.

Teach For America's Impact

You can measure the impact of Teach for America quantitatively. A study by the Urban Institute shows "The impact on student achievement of having a Teach For America corps member was at least twice that of having a teacher with three or more years of experience relative to a new teacher. A 2009 follow-up, employing a larger sample of corps members and additional comparison groups, corroborated the initial findings."

However convincing these numbers may be, I think the most compelling evidence for TFA's impact is anecdotal. After Detroit kicked them out, the parent of a student in a TFA teacher's classroom had this to say:

Patrice Mosley, whose daughter Precious is in Gall's class, said losing Gall could make her rethink whether to look for a new school for her son. "He's a creative teacher, a caring teacher," Mosley said. "For this school to lose him is horrible."
If a parent considers switching schools after a teacher leaves, you can bet that is one amazing teacher.

Why Teach for America's Critics are Wrong

The most common objection to Teach for America's strategy is that they recruit people who just use it as a stepping stone to other career goals.

The first thing to remember is that TFA teachers have proven success, so this gripe is essentially a personal one. It doesn't say anything about the quality of instruction these teachers give to their students.

Why does it matter if TFA teachers leave after two years? If they are good teachers, it shouldn't matter to us whether or not they stay. The point is to bring idealistic young people into struggling schools so they can inspire a sense of hope and ambition in the students who probably haven't had many people encourage them to believe in themselves. The only real education is a self-education. You have to be inspired to want to achieve and believe in your abilities to actively pursue a self-education. Some are lucky to be born into people who encourage them to believe in themselves. A rare few find it themselves even in discouraging environments. Most are capable of it if they are inspired by someone.

This is the single most important task of an educator. Learning isn't a transaction where the teacher implants knowledge into the student's heads. The students have to want it. The task of the educator is to make the students want to learn. Without that, they are just wasting their time.

I can understand why teachers would be offended by young hot-shots coming in, "taking" their jobs, and then skipping town for greener pastures. It would have been a tough decision for Detroit Public Schools to lay off veterans and keep the rookies. But, as Crain's Detroit reports, that tough decision has been made by every other major school district, even those with strong union influence.

I hope Mayor Bing, Robert Bobb, and other leaders in Detroit will do everything they can to bring Teach for America back to their fallen city.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

What The Internet Means

This is the best slideshow I've ever seen. It is about the internet, and what it means. I couldn't possibly sum it up. Just start going through it and you'll probably be hooked.

It's amazing to think how lucky we are to live in such an exciting time.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Identity Theory of Economic Choice

The assumption that individuals are rational utility maximizers is one of the cornerstones of virtually all modern economic thought. This is commonly referred to as "rational choice theory".

This does not mean that individuals are infinitely and inherently selfish. Gary Becker, Nobel-winning Chicago school economist, argues that "...individuals maximize welfare as they perceive it, whether they be selfish, altruistic, loyal, spiteful, or masochistic."

This argument reveals rational choice theory with greater nuance than most economists, but I think it misses the most crucial point. It answers the question "how do individuals maximize their welfare?" but ignores the larger question "what entity's welfare do individuals maximize?"

Discerning what entity's welfare the individual maximizes concerns the ends of economic activity (what people work for), whereas the traditional theory focuses on the means (how people work for something). The individual as articulated by the traditional theory would say, "I work for my welfare by ______", but in reality, individuals say "I work for _____'s welfare by _____".

Insofar as I identify with an entity, I work for it's welfare. For example, insofar as I identify with my nation, I work for it's welfare. Insofar as I identify with my family, I work for it's welfare.

We all identify with multiple groups, to a greater or lesser extent, and at the most basic level, we identify with our selves. When our multiple identities conflict with one another, this is a true conflict of interest. Conflicts between duty and personal interest are commonly called conflicts of interest, but a rational utility maximizer would not have an emotional dilemma dealing with it. They would simply calculate the costs and benefits. When true conflicts of interest occur, we face a deeper question: who/what do we identify with?

Economics, and all rational choice theories that I know of, assumes that individuals use groups as a tool to maximize their individual welfare. The traditional theory would argue that when we help others, we don't actually identify with others, we satisfy our preference for altruism by giving to others. However, I think in reality we belong to groups for more primal, less calculated reasons, which I will discuss later in this essay.

Some might argue that my concept of identity is too imprecise, and not suited to the positive science of economics. This may be partially true, but my explanation clarifies another eternal mystery of economics - what determines individual preferences?

The theory of evolution has strongly established that the overriding interest of any entity is to ensure its survival. I believe this is to be true of all entities, whether they are groups of people or single celled organisms. Whatever we identify with, we work to ensure its survival.

In a modern economies, where we find it unnecessary to worry about our personal survival most of the time, we still constantly exercise our reflexive drive to survive by channeling it into other identities - groups. This makes self-sacrifice possible.

The only phenomena I can think of that this theory can't explain are suicide, masochism, and other forms of self-destruction. Economics cannot explain these either, they are not rational activities.

As to the question of how we form our identities, that is better left to psychology to discuss.

Here are a few examples that help me illustrate my point:

When you vote, you know that there is a very slim chance your vote will affect the election, and the cost of your time and effort required to actually vote outweighs the potential benefit of your vote being pivotal, but you still do it anyway. Why? Because you identify with the your country and you wish to see it steered in a positive direction.

When you help a family member in need, you aren't doing it for personal benefit, you do it because you identify with that person as a member of your family, and you care for the common good.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

What Granholm Did Wrong

If you're not doing the right thing, then fighting harder just makes things worse. You end up digging yourself into a deeper hole.

The Washington Post recently did a piece on Granholm's fight against unemployment in Michigan. It's a serious problem that deserves a valiant effort, but I sure wish she would have spent her energy more wisely.

Consider some of her brilliant tactical moves:

"In her effort to attract employers, the governor has taken up the latest arms in the economic arsenal -- tax credits, loans, Super Bowl tickets and a willingness to travel as far as Japan for a weekend to try to persuade an auto parts company to bring more jobs to Michigan.

"She had spent months calling, e-mailing and meeting with city and state officials trying to sway the company to take a package worth about $70 million in tax breaks to stay in Michigan.


"A $37 million tax package helped persuade Michigan-based United Solar Ovonic -- she wooed the chairman with a trip to the 2006 Super Bowl in Detroit -- to build a solar panel production plant

Instead of literally begging people to bring jobs to Michigan, offering to subsidize anything that moves, and creating more tax loopholes for certain industries than swiss cheese, why didn't she focus on creating the right environment for organic economic growth?

No matter how many degrees she has from Harvard, Granholm is still not as good as the market at choosing what jobs should come to Michigan. She can try to lure a company to open up a factory in Michigan with Super Bowl tickets, but that is not a responsible long term strategy for growth.

Here's the outcome of one of her brilliant job-creating acts of desperation:

"With a tax incentive package worth more than $100 million, Michigan beat out Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma, as well as Spain, in getting Hardee's company and two other alternative-energy firms...

"...In the spring of 2008, Granholm returned to Greenville to tour the United Solar plant that replaced the Electrolux factory.

"They had product orders all the way out until June 2009 back then," said Greenville Mayor Ken Snow. "But the global economy shifted. That left them with more product than orders that need to be filled."

The pesky thing about markets is that they have a tendency to shift. It's a natural and positive process for society. But when you offer $100,000,000.00 in taxpayer money to specific companies to locate in Michigan, you have to either revert to protectionism, reneg on your deal, or lose a $100 million dollar bet that you made with our tax dollars. None of these are good options.

Granholm's erratic behavior has done serious damage to Michigan's economy.

Before, we had the reputation of a state that constantly tried to protect its major industry. We shielded automakers from foreign competition, so they could shut their eyes and pretend the world wasn't changing. But it couldn't' last for long, because all walls eventually fall, and reality came crashing down on Michigan's auto sector and it's overpaid workers. If we had resisted the protectionist temptation from the beginning, maybe the big three would have adapted, GM wouldn't have gone bankrupt, and there would be a lot more jobs in this state. This is why it is crucial for government to be pro-market, not pro-business.

Now, we've succeeded in losing the protectionist reputation, but we have a worse one: erratic. Businesses do not have confidence in the government of Michigan. While Granholm has been traveling the world offering subsidies to anyone who's thinking about bringing a large-scale operation to our state, she's failed to notice that government intervention in the market always creates winners and losers. With every subsidy you offer, you are picking one winner and declaring everyone else a loser. You don't have to be a mathematician to understand that this is a losing equation. This is why it is crucial for government to be pro-market, not pro-business.

However, there is one thing that Granholm got absolutely right. She admits to herself that she doesn't know what she's doing:
"Granholm remembered coming home and telling her husband, "I just don't know what to do for people."
Don't get me wrong - I admire the persistence and effort on her part, I just wish it was more skillfully applied.

I wish she would have fought for tax reform, making the system fairer and simpler, so big corporations can't hire legal departments to find loopholes to exploit while innovative small businesses get stuck paying the lion's share.

I wish she would have fought for efficiency and accountability in government, so we could reduce the tax burden on our struggling businesses, so they can create more jobs and prosperity.

I wish she would have fought for maintaining healthy markets where innovators and entrepreneurs can thrive, and growth can happen organically.

Those are the things Michigan needed most from her.

Incidentally, these are the things Michigan can expect from Rick Snyder. This wasn't going to be a post about his campaign, but I feel obliged to say that if you agree with my analysis of Granholm's failures, you should seriously look into Rick Snyder.