The real deal

It’s ironic that one of the most formative speeches in American history, that of Theodore Roosevelt on August 31, 1910, was not well received by many of the his former supporters while he’d been President. It was labeled “communistic”, “socialistic”, and “anarchistic”. It was also hailed as one of the greatest orations ever given on American soil.

Roosevelt argued:

“In every wise struggle for human betterment one of the main objects, and often the only object, has been to achieve in large measure equality of opportunity. In the struggle for this great end, nations rise from barbarism to civilization, and through it people press forward from one stage of enlightenment to the next. One of the chief factors in progress is the destruction of special privilege.”

Now with the benefit of hindsight and the availability of data, Roosevelt’s belief has been vindicated.

The speech influenced policies directed at providing equality of opportunity, primarily through education. That same thinking influenced the introduction of the G.I. Bill, which as an expression of gratitude to the soldiers that had survived the second world war, also gave back to the nation through the tremendous years of economic growth that followed.

Given the abundance of academic support, the dearth of any informed argument to the contrary, it is surprising that neither of the candidates for the upcoming presidential election has seized this obvious opportunity to reestablish America’s economic progress.

Perhaps it’s because the descendents of those earlier critics still have too much influence.

More at:
The New Nationalism
Inequality from generation to generation: the United States in Comparison Miles Corak
Community-Driven Development, Participation, and Inequality: What Does the Evidence Say?
Inequality and Growth: What Can the Data Say?∗ Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo
Having your cake
A True Progressivism

Escaping the poverty trap

South African politics has a bizarre arrangement that is a legacy of the apartheid era. The ANC, the federation of trade unions (COSATU), and the South African Communist Party (SACP) have an alliance born out of the battle that they fought to overcome the former regime.

Zwelinzima Vavi, the head of COSATU, is quoted as saying that the education system is keeping apartheid alive. He’s right to attack the education system, but he adds nothing constructive to the discussion.

The poverty trap, including poor education standards affects countries round the world, developing and developed. It’s part of the poverty trap, and escaping it is challenging. Esther Duflo, the joint author of Poor Economics is the foremost expert on the subject. In the book she describes how poor parents are forced to decide which child has the best prospect of being the success in the family, and the whole family places its bets on the early developer. The other children are relegated to menial labour. Those not picked eventually succumb to the belief that they are inferior. Paradoxically, scientific studies prove that the best prospect is often not the child the family elected.

Ms Duflo has also come to the conclusion that hope, believing that escape from poverty is possible, is the most influential determinant to making the escape possible.

In other research there are signs that the charter school system can improve education for the poor. The results are promising.

Perhaps everyone would benefit if Mr Vavi spent a little more time reading and a lot less time talking.

More at:
A 20-year lesson
Unions – part of the solution or not
Hope springs a trap
The audacity of hope
SA education: The poorest choice
Vavi: Dysfunctional education system keeps apartheid alive

The wealth of nations

The way that nations present their accounts is badly flawed. The balance sheet figures, which are critical to the understanding of the health of an country, are not are readily available.

In a recent report, the UN has taken an interesting approach in valuing the assets of 20 countries. In addition to the assets normally appearing on the balance sheet, each country’s human capital and natural resources are included. This makes for interesting reading. It gives one a better idea of whether politicians are investing the country’s natural wealth into its people.

The data reflects the position in 2008. At the head of the table in aggregate wealth is the U.S. at about 10 times its GDP at the time. Japan, with its limited natural resources, has invested heavily in it’s people, and so heads the list in per capita wealth.

Let’s hope our leaders take note.

More at:
Inclusive Wealth Report 2012
National balance-sheets
The real wealth of nations
Current-Cost Net Stock of Fixed Assets and Consumer Durable Goods

Politicians don’t care

The correlation between educational standards and economic development is irrefutable. Proof, if it’s needed, can be found in Brazil’s investment in the 1960s and 1970s, when the country paid for PhDs abroad in oil exploration, agricultural research and aircraft design, three areas in which the country is now a world leader.

The problem for politicians is that an investment in education often takes decades, which is way too long for them to get the credit.

What’s really interesting is that money – that is direct cost for the government – only accounts for about 10% of any improvement in the standards of education. So it’s really a matter of finding solutions that work, rather than just throwing money at the problem.

Admittedly, it is not an easy subject to address. Educators do not agree on how success should be measured, or even what the definition of success is.

To complicate matters, the teachers’ trade unions are a powerful lobby groups, and their constituency is not made up of students. They are resistant to metrics.

There are measures of success. The most recent Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) ranks countries that excel, and others, notably the U.S.A. and Britain that lag behind.

Within counties there are clusters of excellence. Ontario (Canada), Wroclaw (Poland), and Dresden (Germany) stand out, each with a different approach. What’s common is the decentralization of decision making, giving committed educators the autonomy to find solutions that work for their students.

The Kahn Academy is proving that novel approaches using technology to best advantage, and not technology for the sake of technology, can also be very successful.

The surprise of Germany’s standing on the PISA ranking contradicts the belief that education standards and economic performance are linked. The PISA ranking, however, ignores the substantial technical education system that forms the backbone of Germany’s manufacturing quality.

The other major factor influencing education standards that is not in dispute is quality of teachers. Again the metrics used to judge teachers is hotly debated. The argument is that the metrics can be manipulated, and they are.

The true measure of teachers is their motivation. There are those who love teaching, and those who think that the only hours that they should work are the hours that they are teaching.

Real teachers work hard. The result of that work can be seen by quietly watching the teacher with a class, sharing their passion for the subject and the pleasure of knowledge. They inspire.

There is no metric for that.

More at:
Germany’s economic model What Germany offers the world
Reforming education The great schools revolution
Electronic education Flipping the classroom
South Korea’s economy What do you do when you reach the top?
Go East, young bureaucrat
Education in Brazil Studying the world
Student Performance In Reading, Mathematics and Science
Salman Khan: From closet to classroom