Tuesday, September 30, 2014

K-12 Schools in Atlanta .... An Example for All of Us as to How the "Broken System" Works

K-12 schools in big American cities such as Chicago and New York have been getting get lots of bad press lately, and deservedly so, concerning the expensive systems for taxpayers and weak educational outcomes for enrolled students.

But the problem is much worse and should be seen in a much broader light than just looking at our broken system of public education in our nation's largest cities, as the example of Atlanta will show.

How much broader? Well, first, we learned about the VA issues and the way the people in charge of that government agency have gamed the compensation and measurement systems in their favor and to the detriment of the veterans depending thereon for their health care needs. And now we're forced to listen to President Obama complain about ISIS  and how it 'surprised' senior officials in his administration with its rapid and destructive growth in Iraq and Syria. {NOTE: His story is not credible, of course, but it's still his story.} And if that's not enough, there's Benghazi, the IRS scandal and countless other bureaucratic "snafus" which have become all too common.

My take on all this is a simple one: Government has grown too complex and its officials aren't especially focused on doing a good job for We the People. Yet We the People still depend on them to take care of us. I don't get it.

Let's look at education and Atlanta's K-12 government schools today.

These schools are governed and operated by and for the educational infrastructure and the benefit of the broken system's administrators and teachers --- not the kids and not their parents.

So here are the salient questions for We the People to address and answer: Vouchers, anyone? Free individual choice or rule by government bureaucrats and elitists?

Trial Opens in Atlanta School Cheating Scandal has the "scandalous" details of a story that's much larger than the one about to be uncovered in an Atlanta courtroom:

"ATLANTA — The criminal trial of a dozen public school educators opened here Monday with prosecutors alleging that the teachers and administrators had engaged in a “widespread, cleverly disguised” conspiracy to cheat on standardized test scores in an effort to protect their jobs and win favor and bonuses from administrators. . . .

It was a near-guarantee that the trial, which is expected to last three months or more, will generate more unpleasantness for these former colleagues at Atlanta public schools. The urban school district has already suffered one of the most devastating standardized-testing scandals of recent years. A state investigation in 2011 found that 178 principals and teachers in the city school district were involved in cheating on standardized tests. Dozens of former employees of the school district have either been fired or have resigned, and 21 educators have pleaded guilty to crimes like obstruction and making false statements. . . .
The criminal trial of a dozen Atlanta Public Schools employees accused of conspiring to alter and boost students’ standardized test scores opened on Monday.

Whether prosecutors will be able to convince a jury that a group of teachers engaged in racketeering — a charge often associated in the public imagination with mobsters and gang members — has been a topic of intense discussion within Atlanta legal circles. . . .

The dozen defendants in court — 10 women and two men — included three regional school district directors, one principal, one assistant principal, two testing coordinators and five teachers. All have pleaded not guilty to a charge of participating in a racketeering conspiracy. All but one of the defendants also face various lesser charges. These vary from defendant to defendant, but in some cases include making false statements, for allegedly lying to investigators; and theft by taking, for the receipt of allegedly undeserved bonus money. All of the defendants have entered not guilty pleas for the lesser charges as well.

As the trial began, a national education group that is critical of what it sees as an over-reliance on standardized testing released a study it said showed that the issues at play in the Atlanta trial were common across the country. The organization, the National Center for Fair And Open Testing, or Fair Test, said cases of manipulating scores in standardized tests have been confirmed in at least 39 states and Washington, D.C.

“Unfortunately, Atlanta is just the tip of a test cheating iceberg,” the organization’s public education director, Bob Schaeffer, said in a statement."

Summing Up

Stay tuned.

This is really ugly.

But it's not just happening in Atlanta.

And it's not just happening in education and in our public schools.

It's simply big bureaucratic and impersonal government in action.

And it's a fact of life across America, as too many of our nation's future leaders are being "schooled" in how government really works.

Scary, isn't it? Sad, too.

That's my take.

Thanks. Bob.

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Illinois Example ... Successful Politicians Beat Successful Businessmen In U.S. Elections ... We Deserve To Be Governed By Those We Elect

Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney for the U.S. presidency in 2012.

And Pat Quinn will beat successful and wealthy businessman Bruce Rauner for the governorship of Illinois in 2014.

Obama wasn't popular when he ran for reelection in 2012.

Quinn isn't popular as he runs for reelection in 2014.

No matter. At least they aren't successful and wealthy businessmen. That's the winning formula for successful politicians --- be pitted against successful businessmen.

You see, as a country we dislike businessmen who are successful and wealthy more than we dislike inept politicians. Capitalists we're not!

If Rauner doesn't win at least 20% of Chicago's vote, he's toast. And he won't win even that low of a percentage when President and Mrs. Obama, women, the teachers unions, other government workers, minority voters, the poor and public sector union members are finished voting.

It's that simple. Downstate doesn't count.

Meanwhile, Chicago's schools will suffer, Chicago's kids and families will suffer and the rest of the good citizens of Illinois will suffer right along with them. As a result, more people will vote with their feet and move on to greener pastures. And that will make things even easier for the next crop of Illinois politicians.

And of course, the nation's leading underfunded public sector pension promises will remain intact, and the overall sick status quo will prevail throughout the financially strapped state of Illinois.

Rauner should have learned from Romney's example, saved his money and not wasted his time.

In a democracy, we get the government we deserve, and so as a nation most of us deserve Obama, and the majority of the good citizens of Illinois deserve Quinn.

That's my take.

Thanks. Bob.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Solution to Getting Better K-12 Results Is a Simple But Not Easy One ... Let Good Teachers Teach and Get the Bureaucrats Out of the Way

Solutions to hard problems are often simple. That said, the solutions frequently aren't easy to achieve. And that's the precise difficulty we face in K-12 education today -- We tend to confuse what's simple with what's easy.

The city of Indianapolis has demonstrated that local K-12 schools can be improved dramatically and without spending more taxpayer money while doing so. Paying good teachers well, having fewer non-value added administrators and bureaucrats on board, and greater local control are the simple keys to success. As I said, easy and simple aren't equals.

Our American federalist system of governance was designed to function with continuous improvements at the local and state levels as the best practices of individual cities and states were observed, considered, adopted and then continuously improved upon by other American cities and states. These laboratories of experimentation and freedom serve to make our unique system of federalism such a potentially powerful force for productivity and improvement.

But sadly, in today's centralized political environment, We the People have abdicated control to the educational 'experts' who claim to be all knowing and always acting in our best interests. These self proclaimed 'experts' are too often neither all knowing nor acting in our best interests.

Liberating Indianapolis Schools From District Control is subtitled 'An innovative new law grants some schools autonomy and even exempts them from a collective-bargaining pact:'

"One of the biggest challenges facing America today is the lackluster state of the K-12 education system. More than half of American workers are not prepared for today's jobs and therefore are condemned to declining wages, with dire implications for the economy and for individuals' ability to thrive in a 21st century workforce.

The wages of male high-school dropouts, for example, adjusted for inflation, have contracted an alarming 33% between 1980 and 2013, according to data from the Digest of Education Statistics. Those with only a high-school diploma saw their wages drop 26%, and those with some college but no degree saw a decline of 17%. This is especially worrying because noncollege graduates make up the majority of the population—64%.

Without dramatic action to reform K-12 education, this is unlikely to change soon. The good news is that change is possible. We're seeing it first-hand here in Indianapolis . . . . In 2009 . . . the (Magnet Middle School) was granted autonomy from the school district's central office and given the power to make changes, including staffing changes. The results . . . the percentage of its students passing math (grew) to 93% in 2013 from 39% in 2009. This occurred even as the percentage of students in poverty . . . grew to 92% from 72%.

But such improvements can be found across the country, if you know where to look. Schools are proving that students—regardless of economic or other life circumstances—can excel. Take Uncommon Schools, a Boston-based network of public charter schools, where three-fourths of students are considered economically disadvantaged, yet more than 80% are English proficient and 85% are math proficient.

What these effective schools have in common is not extra funding, dazzling curricular models or other factors that one might assume lead to success. They simply have the conditions that attract excellent teachers and maximize their transformative power.

Specifically, these schools have autonomy from the centralized bureaucracy of school districts, which gives them more control over curricula and hiring. Because principals control budgets at autonomous schools, they're able to pay great teachers more and reward high performers.

Why is a teacher-centric approach so vital? Ample research shows that excellent teachers are the most critical factor in student success. A 2011 analysis by Stanford University's Erik Hanushek showed that by replacing the bottom 10% of teachers with average teachers, the U.S. could reach the education achievement levels of top-performing countries such as Finland and Canada.

Paying teachers more is an important part of the solution. Many believe this must be done through increased spending, but the answer often lies in more effective allocation of existing resources.

In Indiana the growth rate for non-teaching staff and teaching assistants from 1987 to 2012 was 70.3%, nearly 10 times the 7.7% growth rate among students . . . . Had growth among non-teaching staff and teaching assistants merely kept pace with that of students, Mr. Scafidi estimated that every Indiana teacher could have seen a nearly $26,000 salary increase on the $51,000 base that average midcareer Indiana teachers receive today.

Such facts underscore the need for shifting dollars and decision-making to the school level, which would enable principals to reward excellent teachers by compensating them well. Creating such a system is not easy, in part because there is significant resistance.

Some of that resistance is driven by self-preservation. The jobs of thousands of administrators in top-heavy district offices depend on keeping centralized control. Unions want to protect jobs and seniority-based hiring and compensation. They fight giving school administrators the authority to assemble teams of quality teachers, regardless of experience, and the power to terminate underperforming teachers.

Yet with strong local leadership and enough political will, educators and families can defeat the forces against change. . . .

We all know that changing K-12 education is difficult. Achieving it begins with allowing more autonomy for schools and teachers, and less control from unions and administrators. The future of the American economy—and of today's students—depends on it."

Summing Up

First, let's not confuse simple with easy.

And let's resolve that it's time to take control and make our schools better --- and dramatically so.

The futures of both our country and future generations of Americans are at stake.

Letting school officials serve as keepers of the status quo  --- and whose primary activity is to protect the jobs of too many unnecessary administrators and bureaucrats, while kowtowing to the leadership of the teachers unions, whose primary activity is to collect membership dues and protect the few bad teachers in the system --- and maintain control of what goes on in our schools is a terrible practice and has to be stopped.

That goal is both simple and easy enough to accomplish if enough of We the People sign up to make it happen.

Good teachers in the classrooms who are well paid, properly incentivized and allowed to do the job of educating our young Americans can and will make good things happen.

And making good things happen in today's America must be a concern for all of us.

That's my take.

Thanks. Bob.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Changing Times in America and Cheating Future Generations .... Manufacturing Being Replaced by Debt, Health Care, Social Services, Retailing and Government Jobs

In America we used to manufacture lots of stuff and buy it with the money we earned. As a result, our U.S. economy grew nicely.

Now we buy much of what's manufactured from the Chinese and others, and borrow the money from them to make the purchases. As a result, our debt has grown enormously.

In other words, today we pay for much of what we consume by borrowing from the Chinese and send the repayment obligation on to future generations of Americans, including our kids and grandkids.

Yes, things have changed in a big way over the past 25 years as globalization, technology, the aging of our society, growth in government and debt, collectively and individually, continue to negatively impact our previous American way of life.

How America's Top Industries Have Changed, 1990-2013 tells the story in a few simple charts:

"The U.S.’s most dominant industries look a lot different than they did less than 25 years ago. From 1990 to 2013, the top industries by employment have changed from mostly manufacturing to mostly health-care and social-assistance jobs in the majority of states . . . . The states where retail jobs were most prevalent were located mostly in the West in 1990 and now reside predominantly in the Southeast.
According to the Labor Department, “The largest increase in healthcare and social assistance employment in the states occurred in 2009, as retail trade, manufacturing, and other industries showed declines with the onset of the most recent recession.” Health care surpassed manufacturing in number of jobs in 2004.

Summing Up

We need more jobs, and we need to relearn the simple truism that government "leaders" won't and can't save us from ourselves. Things just don't work that way.

Neither continued growth in government nor legislative programs such as ObamaCare will solve our many problems either.

Nor will pretending that our society isn't aging and that global competition in the midst of a changing technological landscape aren't lasting realities.

The fact is that more baby boomers are now retiring each day than there are young people entering the work force. This serves as a clear and present warning about the long term viability of our current Social Security and Medicare pay-as-you-go unfunded retirement systems.

But setting aside all that, freedom still works and we're still very much a free society. In that regard, an informed democracy is the way to get things back on track and meet our formidable challenges.

For example, we have an abundance of untapped domestic energy which could tremendously help achieve U.S. energy independence, provide good high paying jobs and result in a reduced reliance on Middle Eastern, Russian and Venezuelan oil.

I sure hope we wake up soon. Don't you?

That's my take, and I hope it's yours as well.

Thanks. Bob.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Message for Young Savers and Investors ... Keep It Simple ... Try Putting the Horse Before the Cart

Getting things right in the end begins with starting right and on time in the beginning.

For young workers starting their careers, that means keeping things simple and getting a grip on why developing the habit of saving and investing at an early age is an essential ingredient to later success.

There's absolutely no reason for those entering the work force to make things difficult for themselves or have 'paid experts' when embarking on an adulthood which includes saving and investing for the benefit of themselves and their families over the long haul.

Seven Investing Lessons for Teens contains solid and simple advice for the beginning saver and investor as well as his or her well intentioned parents:

"Frequently . . . parents try to teach their teenage children about investing by encouraging them to pick an individual stock. . . .

A much better plan is to teach your children the following:
  • Why it’s important to invest (to stave off inflation and increase your purchasing power)
  • How to find the money to invest (by living within your means and saving regularly)
  • When to invest your savings (when it’s longer term money)
  • How to decide between an active or a passive / evidenced-based investing approach (hint: would you rather search for a four-leaf clover or own the whole field)
  • How to pick the optimal asset allocation (110 minus your age for the portion to put in equities is a good starter rule-of-thumb)
  • How to diversify within each asset class (U.S. vs. international; small cap, mid cap, large cap; value, growth)
  • Whether or not you want to obtain your exposure by buying mutual/index funds or individual stocks and bonds (note, this is the last–not the first–step).
While it may be easier and more fun to start investing lessons by encouraging your child to pick an individual stock, without the broader context what you are really doing is teaching your child to trade–as opposed to creating a well-diversified investment portfolio for the long run."

Summing Up

Parents should teach their kids the whys of saving and investing in context, and help the young acquire solid individual saving and investing disciplines to be followed throughout adulthood.

The fundamental "why" of individual saving and investing is all about staying ahead of inflation and letting the compound interest rule of 72 work its magic over the length of the individual's working career.

It's also about developing the habit of living within one's means and investing in a low cost and well diversified portfolio of blue chip stocks.

There are no heroics required, but rather just the adoption of and adherence to the boring basics.

But first things first --- and that means either being taught or teaching ourselves "why" we need to be fair to our future selves by choosing early to live within our means and routinely save and invest a portion of our earnings.

That's my take.

Thanks. Bob.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Although Historically High, Student Loans Will Definitely Keep Growing as Government Subsidizes Loans to Future Government Employees and Then Forgives Them

Government is too big, debt is too high and students are too indebted. So naturally our fearless leaders have decided to make these already big problems even bigger. Government is at it again.

Now government is not only encouraging the young to take on debt, but it's incentivizing them to go to work for the government or a nonprofit entity. And if they do so, in ten years all remaining outstanding student debts will be "forgiven." In simple language, its unmistakable message is grow the government, grow the debt and forget the private sector. That's insanity in action.

Student loans outstanding now total ~$1.3 trillion, and that's going to increase at an even faster pace.

When future graduates enter what is already a relatively big and unproductive government sector instead of the more productive and risky private sector, their loans will receive preferential treatment. And as a result, We the People as taxpayers will get stuck with bigger government as well as the student's loan obligation. Just what we need --- more government and more debt.

In short, any outstanding balances after ten years are forgiven to new government and nonprofit employees, and the remaining balance will be charged to taxpayers. But for those student borrowers entering the private sector, their loans won't be forgiven until twenty years have passed --- twice as long. You can't make this stuff up.

Defaults on Federal Student Loans Decline tells us how the government worker gets the preferential and taxpayer provided freebies:

"The Education Department reported a drop in Americans defaulting on their student loans, a development it attributed to an improving economy and a surge in enrollment in federal debt-forgiveness programs.

About one in seven borrowers who left college or graduate school in the fiscal year ended September 2011 had defaulted on their student loans within three years, the department said Wednesday. The official figure—13.7%—was down from the 14.7% rate for those who left school in fiscal 2010. . . .

Still, the government's default measure vastly underestimates the problem. The government considers people in default if they have made no payments in 360 days. A broader measure by the New York Federal Reserve—which accounts for all Americans with student loans—shows that roughly one in four borrowers are at least 90 days behind on a payment. . . .

The Education Department said this year's drop reflected the administration's efforts over the past two years to enroll borrowers in so-called income-based repayment plans, which set borrowers' payments at 10% of their discretionary income. The plans promise to forgive debt after a set period—10 years for those in nonprofit and government jobs, and 20 years for those in the private sector. . . .

Enrollment in the plans has surged, thanks in part to a continuing administration publicity campaign. As of June, the number had swelled to 1.91 million Americans holding more than $101 billion in student loans—nearly a 10th of all outstanding federal student debt. The number of borrowers and debt covered roughly has doubled in the past year.

The administration says stemming student-loan defaults helps not just individual borrowers but the economy because Americans who default damage their credit and thus impede their ability to spend and borrow. But the programs also carry long-term costs to the government, as any debt forgiven is covered by taxpayers."

Summing Up

Government spending and debt are far too high. Largely as a result, economic growth and employment continue to be weak in this all too anemic economic recovery.

At the same time, student loans outstanding are $1.3 trillion and climbing.

And there is a virtual certainty that already too high student loan delinquencies will go higher, even if we use the government's lowball ~14% estimate instead of the Federal Reserve's more realistic ~25% number.

And that's because those percentages are before the new forgiveness provisions are fully reflected in the "official" numbers, whatever that means.

This is nuts, but our government is hard at work creating more government workers and getting more votes.

This is precisely the kind of thing that We the People shouldn't want, don't need and can't afford --- more government, more taxes, more debt, fewer jobs, slower economic growth and more newly "bribed" government workers who will be incentivized to become voters for the status quo.

That's my take.

Thanks. Bob.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Cheating Today's K-12 Students and Tomorrow's Taxpayers ... Public Schools are Twice as Costly as Believed by Most Americans

Much spending for American education is wasted. That's not a popular thing to say, of course, but it doesn't make it untrue. It also doesn't make it easy to address and solve.

The problem of spending more money for less education is very real but not front and center on the political agenda. And that's largely because too many of We the People choose to believe that our local schools are doing a good job. We also mistakenly choose to believe that they are not spending nearly as much money as they are spending. The facts are otherwise.

In fact, our local schools are getting more than 50% of what they spend in the form of "free or happy hour money" from our state and federal governments, money which those governments don't have to spend. As a result, the nation's financial woes deepen while local educational shortfalls escalate. Less education for more money is not a value nor is it a winning formula for America.

And lots of that money is borrowed which will have to repaid with interest by future generations. In other words, the bill ultimately will be paid by today's students. We're not being fair to them.

But too many politicians and school officials distort or even hide the facts and play games and in order to win votes and keep spending money that we don't have. It's sad, but it's entirely in line with what lots, if not most, of politicians and government officials are misrepresenting as truth  to We the People these days. That's a shame too.

So let's take a crack at explaining the real situation and its harmful impact on both present and future generations of Americans. We'll do so by providing facts.

In round numbers, approximately 45% of the K-12 public school funding comes from local residents, mostly from local property taxes. The other 55% consists of two pieces --- ~45% comes from the individual states with ~10% provided by from the federal government.

In addition, as much as 30% of the total is needed to pay greatly overpromised and underfunded pensions for teachers and school administrators. {NOTE: If we assume that 100% of the 45% of the "locally funded" money is used to pay retiree pensions, then a whopping two thirds of local funds raised are going to pay for pensions to retired teachers and administrators and not to educate the local community's students.}

How the Education Spendthrifts Get Away With It is subtitled 'Politicians exploit Americans' sense that local education costs are about half of what is really being spent:'

"Money for schools has again become a campaign issue. In the Florida governor's race, Charlie Crist says that the "first thing [Gov. Rick Scott ] does when he comes in . . . is cut education by $1.3 billion." To which Gov. Scott replies, "The $18 billion in funding for K-12 education funding is the highest in Florida history and includes a record $10.6 billion in state funds."

Pennsylvania's Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Tom Wolf accuses Republican Gov. Tom Corbett of cutting the state's school budget by $1 billion, to which Gov. Corbett replies that spending has actually risen. Similar claims and counterclaims have been heard in Illinois, Michigan, Florida, Kansas and elsewhere.
It's easy to see why candidates promise more money for schools. As long as taxes are ignored and no mention is made of current levels of expenditure, calling for more spending is a political no-brainer. In the recently released Education Next poll of a nationally representative sample of the public, . . . 60% of Americans say they want to spend more. Among parents, 70% want more spending, and 75% of teachers agree.

But if one drills down, much of that enthusiasm evaporates in a cloud of confusion and inconsistency. We discovered this by dividing respondents to our survey into three randomly selected, equally representative groups.

The first group was asked whether they thought school spending "to fund public schools in your district should increase, decrease or stay the same?" The second group, though asked that same question, was first told the level of expenditure per pupil in their district . . . . The third group was given that same information but was asked whether they thought "taxes to fund public schools in your district should increase, decrease or stay the same?"

Support for more spending fell to 44% from 60% when respondents were given information on current amounts of spending. Levels fell further to only 26% favoring more spending among the group asked if they favored tax increases to fund higher spending.

Political debates over school spending also take place in a fog because the public has the illusion that the rest of the nation's schools are expensive but their local schools are a bargain. When asked to estimate per-pupil expenditures nationwide, the public makes an average estimate of $10,155 ... (much) lower than the $12,608 per-pupil figure reported for 2011 by the Department of Education.

But when asked about costs locally, Americans think their schools are giving their children an education at reasonable prices. On average, they say the cost is only $6,486 per pupil in their district, barely half the actual costs of $12,608 per pupil in 2011, according to the Education Department. Local estimates by both parents and teachers are even lower. . . .

Education expenditures may become a local issue if the school board wants to raise local taxes. But, on average, only 45% of school costs come from local revenues, with states (45%) and the federal government (10%) supplying the remainder. Money coming from state and federal governments is usually treated by local politicians as "free" to the local community, and thus attention given to costs target only that 45% of the total borne by the local community.

Whatever the reasons . . . the facts are clear: Parents, teachers and the public at large all think that local schools are giving them more for less—even when that is unlikely. That's why politicians who favor more spending deliberately sow confusion about current expenditures. These are all reasons why transparency in spending should be part of the school-reform conversation."

Summing Up

If $1 is spent, it matters not whether that money comes from local, state or federal taxpayers.

We the People pay all three taxes, regardless of whether we choose to look at or ignore the real situation.

For example, if we spend that $1 and only have available 80 cents of that $1 in our pockets or bank accounts, we will have to borrow that additional 20 cents.

And that 20 cents will have to be repaid with interest at a future time, one way or another.

And the people making the debt repayments will likely be the ones sitting in today's classrooms.

Not the teachers, administrators, retirees, politicians nor the rest of us who are content to sit idly by with our eyes closed and allow the wasteful and needlessly expensive system of "voucherless" public education continue unabated.

That's not fair.

Thanks. Bob.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Learning by Doing ... Perfect Practice Makes Perfect ... Getting in Position Isn't Enough for Mastery ... Spending Time on Task and Developing the Habit of Continuous and Rapid Improvement are Essential

Learning by doing is a simple requirement of acquiring expertise.

The mastery of any task, skill or idea boils down to three simple and doable practices: (1) Getting in Position; (2) Spending Sufficient Time on Task; and (3) Developing the Habit of Continuous and Rapid Improvement.

How individuals become what most people later mistakenly refer to as "natural athletes" is a great way to explain these three simple yet profound keys to success.

First, there's the 'showing up and acting right' foundational piece. Practice is essential but practice doesn't make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.

But first we have to attend practice and get in the gym, on the field or wherever else our chosen athletic expertise is to be achieved over hours, weeks, months and years. And that requires countless hours of time on task combined with the habit of improvement (getting better each day by doing the right things right) and being instructed by qualified teachers and coaches. Genuine expertise comes only from sustained effort and finally getting "it" right, whatever "it" is. Perfect practice, in other words.

And so it is with academics as well. Why more people don't understand and embrace that simple 1-2-3 formula for success has long been one of life's great mysteries to me.

How We Should Be Teaching Math is subtitled "Achieving 'conceptual' understanding doesn't mean true mastery. For that, you need practice:"

"One of my engineering students recently approached me with a mixture of anger and befuddlement, thrusting toward me a quiz sheet covered with red pen marks: "I just don't see how I could have done so poorly. I understood it when you taught it in class."

I smiled encouragingly, but inside I sighed. The semester was just beginning. I hadn't had time to disabuse the student's naïveté. He still thought that because he "understood" the material, he was all set.

I'm now a professor of engineering, but in my mid-20s I was an artsy language lover who had flunked her way through elementary-, middle- and high-school math and science. What I discovered when I started over at age 26—first tackling remedial middle-school math and then working my way toward a Ph.D. in systems engineering—is that a conceptual understanding only gets you so far.

Conceptual understanding has become the mother lode of today's approach to education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics—known as the STEM disciplines. However, an "understanding-centric approach" by educators can create problems. . . .

True experts have a profound conceptual understanding of their field. But the expertise built the profound conceptual understanding, not the other way around. There's a big difference between the "ah-ha" light bulb, as understanding begins to glimmer, and real mastery.
. . . the development of true expertise involves extensive practice . . . . This involves plenty of repetition in a flexible variety of circumstances. In the hands of poor teachers, this repetition becomes rote—droning reiteration of easy material. With gifted teachers, however, this subtly shifting and expanding repetition mixed with new material becomes a form of deliberate practice and mastery learning.

True mastery doesn't mean you use crutches like laying out 25 beans in 5-by-5 rows to demonstrate that 5 × 5 = 25. It means that when you see 5 × 5, in a flash, you know it's 25—it's a single neural chunk that's as easy to pull up as a ribbon. Having students stop to continually check and prove their understanding can actually impede their understanding, in the same way that continually focusing on every aspect of a golf swing can impede the development of the swing.

I'm a big proponent of active learning in the classroom—allowing students to interact with one another, and with me, to experience that light-bulb-going-on effect. But I'm also fully aware that just because a student might think he understood an idea in a classroom doesn't mean that he truly understood the idea. It certainly doesn't mean the student will retain that idea. And it absolutely doesn't mean that he has mastered the idea.

My angry, befuddled student, and many like him in my class, went on to take quiz after carefully designed quiz—all on the computer, and all designed to help students get the practice that would allow them to gain true mastery. When the semester ended, and evaluations on the class came (with an average of 4.9 out of 5 for a 65-student class), one comment typified many: "I really enjoyed this technique. At first, I wasn't too sure about it. Then it was tedious. However, then I realized how well I was doing on the online quizzes and the in-class quizzes and knew that something must be working!"

Understanding is key. But not superficial, light-bulb moment of understanding. In STEM, true and deep understanding comes with the mastery gained through practice."

Summing Up

The formula for developing expertise is actually quite simple.

It's all about learning by doing.

But learning by doing takes lots of time and repetition.

And that's true for academics and learning generally.

So for the young, acquiring lots of knowledge by following the simple formula of (1) getting in position, (2) spending time on task and (3) developing the habit of continuous and rapid improvement are the essentials leading to mastery --- of anything deemed by them to be worth mastering.

That's my take.

Thanks. Bob.

Monday, September 22, 2014

College "Frugality" and How Much of Our Money Is Being Spent on the College "Experience"

Student debt is at all time highs. So are college costs. And academics all too often seem to be taking a back seat to good times.

Simply put, colleges today are competing for new students in other than academically oriented ways. And in unbelievably expensive ways as well. You see, it's not just at or near the athletic complex where the big time entertainment money on campus is being spent.

Want a few examples of the ways taxpayer funds and money raised by student loans and other debts can be used to attract students in order to "enhance" their college experience? Well, read on and be amazed.

Making a Splash on Campus is subtitled 'College Recreation Now Includes Pool Parties and River Rides:'   

Students watching “Jaws” at a “dive-in movie” at Missouri State’s aquatic center in Springfield.             

But with dozens of schools (including some of its Southeastern Conference rivals) building the water rides, the university had to do one better: When its lazy river is finished in 2016, it will spell out the letters “LSU”. . . .
“The students involved in the planning process wanted something cooler than what anyone else had,” said Laurie Braden, the school’s director of recreation....
In the university recreation center arms race — with 92 schools reporting over $1.7 billion in capital projects . . . the latest thing is to turn a piece of campus into something approaching a water theme park.   

Floating on the “lazy river” at Texas Tech’s water recreation park. The $8.4 million complex includes a water slide and deck.                    

At Auburn University in Alabama, for example, students can soak in a 45-person paw-print-shaped hot tub or scale a 20-foot wet climbing wall before plunging into the pool. Designs for North Dakota State’s facility, on which construction is scheduled to begin next year, include a zip line that students can ride out over the water, a 36-foot-diameter vortex of swirling water and a recessed fireplace on an island in the middle of the pool that students can swim up to. A small “rain garden” is planned to mist lounging students.
Over at Clemson University in South Carolina, there’s talk of redeveloping a 38-acre property on Lake Hartwell, across from the current rec center. The project may include “blobs,” essentially floating mattresses placed so that students can jump from one to another. . . .
“Aquatics are a huge growth area,” said Jack Patton, who leads the sports-facilities group at RDG Planning and Design, an architecture firm in Des Moines. “A lot of students don’t want to swim laps, but a leisure pool is a great equalizer: I can get my toes wet, I can play, I can study or I can go full in.”. . .

At Texas Tech.             

Texas Tech holds a pool party during the first week of school to show off two acres that include a Texas-size lazy river, water slide and terraced wet deck for tanning. (There’s Wi-Fi, too.) . . .
“As it gets warmer, you start seeing less people in class,” . . . “Everyone will say, ‘Let’s go float the river.’ There will be, like, 300 people there, and there won’t be any inner tubes or rafts left.”
With college costs climbing and outstanding student loan debt at a record $1.2 trillion, schools justify these facilities as important for recruitment and retention. Classrooms can look alike, but pools are a memorable tour stop for prospective students, especially, say, at the University of Missouri, where guides show off the indoor beach club’s palm trees, lazy river and waterfall, and coyly announce that the grotto was modeled after the one at the Playboy Mansion . . . ."

Summing Up

Now who can top that?

Far too much of today's "college experience" is too expensive and not about academics.

Our college leaders should be ashamed. But they're clueless and apparently not even embarrassed.

It's all rather sad, and it's all being financed with student and taxpayer debt.

That makes it extremely dangerous to our nation's future economic health and well being.

That's my take.

Thanks. Bob.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Student Loans Have Surged as Tuition Costs for Students Have Doubled ... While College Administrators Continue to Spend, Students, Parents and Taxpayers Will Get the Bill

In large part as a result of the Great Recession, Americans in general have begun to more closely monitor personal debt levels and that's a good thing.

Except for one huge exception, that is. And that outlier is the following --- outstanding debt for student loans has more than doubled since 2007, and that's a bad thing --- and a very bad thing at that.

Outstanding student debt has reached historic proportions and there is no relief in sight. The tuition and fees charged to attend college continue to rise at double the rate of inflation, even as state government subsidies fall. In other words, states are finished doling out subsidy money that they don't have, so students are getting loans from the federal government (even though the feds have no money to lend either). The result of all this shell game shuffling is to allow the colleges and their administrators to refrain from having to rein in or otherwise begin to control their bloated cost structures. It's a shame.

Household Net Worth Has Rebounded tells the story in brief:

"Seven years after households’ financial conditions began to deteriorate in 2007, their net worth is 20 percent higher than the prerecession peak. Real estate values have not completely recovered, but households have a lot more money in the bank and have profited from rising stock prices. Their total debt is little changed from prerecession levels, but the makeup of that debt has changed. Households owe less in mortgage and credit card debts, but auto loans are up and student loan debt has doubled. . . .

The decline in household debt is largely due to lower mortgage debt, particularly home equity loans. But consumer credit has continued to rise and now equals a record 19 percent of G.D.P.

That is largely because of the continued surge in student loan debt — an obligation concentrated in younger households and among those who are far from wealthy. It has more than doubled since 2007. In 2006, when the Fed began to report on student loan debt as a separate category, the debt totaled $509 billion, or 22 percent of total consumer debt. Now, it equals $1.3 trillion, a 40 percent share of consumer debt.

That is more than Americans owe either on credit card debts ($839 billion) or auto loans ($919 billion)."

{NOTE: In fact, the enormous debt levels attributable to outstanding student loans will ruin the future prospects, dreams, living standards and savings capabilities for far too many of today's young Americans.}

So here's another description of how it is playing out in Why Federal College Ratings Won't Rein In Tuition:    

"College costs have been rising for decades. Slowing — or even better, reversing — that trend would get more people into college and help reduce student debt. . . . First, consider public colleges (attended by about 80 percent of undergraduates), where tuition has grown faster than inflation for decades. From 1988 to 2013, average tuition at four-year public colleges more than doubled, even after adjusting for inflation.

Yet here is a surprising fact: Public colleges are collecting about the same revenue per student today as they were 25 years ago. In 1988, educational revenue per full-time equivalent student at public colleges was $11,300; in 2013, it was $11,500. (These amounts are adjusted for inflation and are expressed in 2013 dollars.)

That’s just a 3 percent increase. How can this be? If tuition has doubled, shouldn’t public colleges be getting double the revenue?

To reconcile this paradox, we need some background on college finances. Public colleges depend on two sources of revenue for educating undergraduates: tuition from students and appropriations from their state legislatures. Top research institutions, like the University of Michigan and University of Virginia, also get revenue from endowments, research grants and teaching hospitals. But most students attend public schools where tuition and state funds pay for almost everything.

In 1988, state legislatures gave their public colleges an average of $8,600 a student. Students contributed an additional $2,700 in tuition, which gets us to a total of $11,300. By 2013, states were kicking in just $6,100, while students were contributing $5,400; this gets us to a total of $11,500. As far as students are concerned, public tuition has doubled. As far as public colleges are concerned, funding is flat.

At public colleges, then, the explanation for rising tuition prices isn’t spiraling costs. The costs are the same, but the burden of paying those costs has shifted from state taxpayers to students....

The bottom line is that better-informed consumers can’t do much to hold down prices in public colleges, because those prices are not set in a competitive market. Instead, they are determined through a political process, so it is only through the ballot box that people can affect them."

Summing Up

Tuition for students has doubled.

Individual states have cut back funding.

The federal government has increased student loans to make up the difference.

College costs are far too high, but colleges aren't cutting their bloated cost structures.

Students and their parents, as well as the nation's taxpayers generally, will get the bills as colleges fail to rein in costs. 

Sickening, isn't it?

More competition, genuinely lower college costs for student attendees and their families, fewer government handouts to college administrations, and an infinitely better deal for taxpayers and American society, anyone ?

That's my take.

Thanks. Bob.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Successful Investing In the Stock Market Requires a "Time in the Market Mentality" and Not a "Timing the Market Approach"

Investing in the stock market should be boring, even when it's not.

And that's because when stock prices fluctuate, as they do and sometimes violently so, it's more painful for individuals as they fall than it is pleasurable when they rise. That's just our human nature at work.

So in the midst of all the noise made by the pundits and advice offered by so-called experts, it helps greatly to have the knowledge, perspective and patience of a long term investor when buying and owning stocks for the long haul. With that in mind, the following article is worth sharing at this "high point" in the market.

Don't Be Lulled By the Stock Market's Smooth Ride is subtitled 'It's Been a Long Time Since the Last Correction --- And That's a Reason to Plan for the Next One:

The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed at a new record high on Thursday.

"After a five-year surge, the Dow Jones Industrial Average hit a new all-time high this past week. If you were along for the ride, congratulations.

But here's what's unnerving: It has been more than 700 trading days since the Dow closed 10% below its previous high. That is the fourth-longest run without a drop of that size, known as a correction, since 1929....

Nobody knows when the market might turn. The 1990s bull market lasted more than twice as long without a correction.

But the longer we go without a stock-market pullback, the harder it will be for investors to handle when it inevitably occurs. A stable market breeds complacency. Complacency breeds bad investing behavior. Bad investing behavior breeds regret.

Now is a good time to remember that the past few years of smooth sailing aren't normal. Since 1950, the S&P 500 has suffered a decline of 20% or more sometime during the year in about one-fifth of all years, according to Chicago-based investment-consulting firm Marquette Associates. About a quarter of all years saw a retreat of 10% to 15%.

Yet, when adjusted for inflation and dividends, U.S. stocks increased more than 90-fold during this period, according to data from Yale University economist Robert Shiller.

Once you realize how normal and inevitable market volatility is, you might think of it differently when it comes. It might look less risky, and more like the cost of admission to achieving the market's long-term returns.

Here are a few things to keep in mind when thinking about how to react to the market's next inevitable correction.

How long can you stick around? Risk in the stock market is less about wondering whether a pullback will come and more about asking how long you can remain invested. An analysis of Mr. Shiller's data shows that, since 1871, a broad group of U.S. stocks has earned a positive return in 60% of all one-month periods—but in 95% of all 15-year periods and in every 20-year period, adjusted for dividends and inflation.

Having money invested in stocks that you may need for living expenses within the next five years dramatically increases the odds of falling victim to the market's inevitable volatility. Keeping a larger portion of your assets in bonds or cash might damp returns in the short run, but it's a small price to pay if it offers enough flexibility to ensure that money you have in stocks can remain invested for the longer haul, where returns are the greatest.

Investors fret about rock-bottom yields on cash these days, but the pain of having to be a desperate seller during a sharp stock-market downturn can damage your wealth in far deeper ways.

Make it boring. Your biggest enemy in investing is your own emotions. The excitement of chasing a hot market, and the fear created by crashes, tempts many investors to make buy and sell decisions at the worst possible times, rushing in at market tops and fleeing at market bottoms. . . .

An automatic-investing plan, such as regular contributions to a 401(k), can help take the emotions out of investing decisions. Investing in consistent amounts every month promises you will buy stocks when the market is high and overvalued, but also when it's low and cheap after a market crash. Over time, averaging your purchase prices throughout the market's ups and downs may set you up for far more success than attempting to jump in and out of stocks at just the right time. . . .
Above all, realize that when the next market crash comes, this, too, will pass. The smartest investors may not be the most prescient, but the most patient.

"Timing the market is a fool's game," says Nicholas Murray, a New York-based consultant to financial advisers, "but time in the market is your greatest natural advantage.""

Summing Up

Know thyself is the best advice for individual investors to follow.

If you are prone to panic and sell when the fit hits the shan, which it inevitably will from time to time, don't invest in stocks.

Because prices will go down from time to time, and sometimes violently.

But also know that over time prices will increase and that the long term ownership of shares in solid companies will provide better returns than other forms of savings and investing.

Finally, recognize and internalize the profound difference between 'timing the market,' which is foolish, and 'time in the market,' which is smart.

In other words, don't play the market for the short term. Instead, invest in it for the long haul.

That's my take.

Thanks. Bob.

Friday, September 19, 2014

UPDATE TO PRIOR POST --- NFL Announces Needed Changes Will Be Quick in Coming ... The Fans and Sponsors Reign Supreme .... And That's Exactly As It Should Be

Commissioner Goodell held a press conference and issued a strong and sincere mea culpa this afternoon on behalf of the NFL and its owners. To me that's a sign that better days lie ahead for the league, league officials, players, sponsors and the ones in charge --- NFL fans, aka the customers.

It's also a clear demonstration of free markets at work and that the customers are the real bosses.

NFL Seeks to Implement New Personal Conduct Policies is subtitled 'Commissioner Goodell Admits Mistakes, Says NFL 'Will Get Our House in Order:''

"NFL commissioner Roger Goodell tried to end the controversy swirling around his league, now in its second week, on Friday afternoon in his most expanded comments since a domestic violence scandal hit football.

Mr. Goodell outlined a new conduct committee and seemed open to relinquishing some disciplinary power....

Mr. Goodell took the blame for the wave of crises. "We have seen all too much of the NFL doing wrong," he said. "That starts with me."
While Mr. Goodell was light on specifics as to what will be the exact role of the conduct committee, which he hopes to have in place by the Super Bowl, the biggest news was that he would be reviewing his own role in the appeals process for player discipline. Mr. Goodell currently has final say on all matters and a neutral arbitrator is appointed only in cases that he determines one is needed, unlike other sports where neutral arbitration is guaranteed. The commissioner wouldn't commit to exact changes on his role but said "everything is on the table."

"We will get our house in order," he said.

The conduct committee, which the league likens to the NFL's competition committee will likely have more outside voices, however, since the competition committee is made up of league owners, coaches and executives. The league this week hired three advisers, all women, to evaluate the process by which they handle these cases. Mr. Goodell said he regretted one portion of that handling in the Rice case—interviewing Ray and Janay Rice together in the same room. He said he's been advised they should have made separate statements away from each other.

Mr. Goodell said he hasn't considered resigning, saying he is focused on his current tasks. He also said he still has support of ownership. Mr. Goodell said he didn't think the league was close to losing a major sponsor. Though Friday, Crest toothpaste did say it would scale back its participation in an upcoming program with the NFL. "We thoughtfully reviewed the action and decided it was the most appropriate course," a P&G spokesman said. Crest will donate, as planned, $100,000 to the American Cancer Society for breast cancer awareness, but it "has decided to cancel on-field activation with NFL teams," according to a statement.

Mr. Goodell apologized for initially getting the Rice suspension wrong. Mr. Rice was suspended two games by Mr. Goodell before new video evidence emerged. Mr. Rice, who is now suspended indefinitely and has been cut by his team, was entered into a pretrial diversion program that will result in, upon completion, assault charges being dropped.

Despite an Associated Press report in which an unnamed law enforcement official claimed to have sent the second video in April, Mr. Goodell reiterated that he believes no one in the office saw the video.

In the wake of the scandal, the Carolina Panthers benched defensive end Greg Hardy, who had played in week one after a conviction for domestic abuse and communicating threats against his girlfriend. Also this week, Arizona Cardinals running back Jonathan Dwyer was arrested on aggravated assault charges. The Cardinals immediately deactivated him as well.

Earlier, Goodell sent a letter to teams stating that the league is giving "financial, operational and promotional support" to two of the biggest domestic violence and sexual assault organizations—the National Domestic Violence Hotline and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. An NFL official said the deal was a "multimillion, multiyear" deal.

The commissioner said in the letter that because of the attention the NFL's domestic violence issues received, calls to the National Domestic Violence Hotline increased 84% from Sept. 8-15. He said that according to the organization, more than half of those calls went unanswered because of staffing.

"That must not continue," he wrote."

Summing Up

Now we're getting where we need to go.

When customers rule, good things happen.

In this case, sad as it is, team owners, league officials and players are clearly and quickly reacting to what their customers and sponsors are demanding.

Customers and sponsors are all demanding that the NFL leadership, team owners and players all clean up their acts.

The NFL and American society will be better for what has happened these past few weeks, despite its total ugliness.

That's my take.

Thanks. Bob.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Nike, the NFL and the Big Business of Sports Entertainment ... Customers Reign Supreme ... For the Owners, Sponsors and Players, It's All About Customer Satisfaction

Lately there has been lots of dramatic and generally horrific bad news hitting the headlines about a few professional athletes and their terrible off-the-field behaviors.

Professional sports in general, and the NFL in particular, are big business --- and a hugely successful entertainment business at that.

In addition to being highly skilled and trained athletes, the extremely well paid athletes are part of a huge business whose purpose it is to entertain customers and help generate big dollars from fans and sponsors for their teams, their leagues and themselves.

So the customers, aka fans, always call the signals in the end, as is the case with all businesses. Customers reign supreme, and the team owners, league sponsors and employees/players all know, or at least should know, that simple fact of their business lives.

So what will happen now to the people who have violated the trust of their fans and customer base? And what will the sponsors choose to do? And how will the owners and the league anticipate or react to those choices?

Well, that's up to the customers, aka fans, since they pay the bills. And that's the way it should be.

So hurry and clean up your act, NFL owners, or suffer the consequences. The customers and the sponsors will be calling the shots, so listen carefully to what they have to say. And if that means that some new replacement players accompanied by a new attitude and set of behaviors will be required to keep the fans/customers happy and on board, so much the better.

Nike Shareholders Express Concerns About Sponsorships is subtitled 'Athletic Gear Maker Has Ended Contracts With 3 Prominent Athletes' and says in pertinent part:

Shoes are displayed in the Nike store in Santa Monica, Calif.           

"Nike executives fielded concerns about risks in the company's athletic endorsements at their annual shareholder meeting Thursday, in the wake of several high-profile suspensions of sponsored athletes for violent behavior.

Within the past month, Nike has terminated or suspended contracts with three prominent athletes over issues of domestic violence. One shareholder asked Nike brand President Trevor Edwards if "recent athlete incidents change your view on sponsoring professional athletes."

Mr. Edwards responded that the company evaluates such incidents "on a case-by-case basis, really looking at that individual situation and making sure that we make our decisions really based on the situation at hand. And importantly, the facts that we know at that point in time."

On Wednesday, Nike issued a statement announcing the suspension of its contract with Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who is facing charges of injuring his 4 year old son after allegedly beating him with a switch. The company said it "in no way condones child abuse or domestic violence of any kind and has shared our concerns with the NFL."

The statement followed earlier terminations of contracts with Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice and Olympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius. Mr. Rice has admitted to hitting his then-fiancee in a hotel elevator earlier this year, while Mr. Pistorius was convicted last week of culpable homicide in the 2013 shooting death of his girlfriend.

Nike executives also addressed questions more directly tied to business operations at the meeting, which took place at the company's Beaverton, Ore., headquarters. Asked how the company might capitalize on shifting consumer trends in athletic apparel, Chief Executive Mark Parker said that the plan is to drive "performance apparel into lifestyle apparel to create a unique position for Nike."

According to recent analysis by Barclay's, the athletic apparel industry is projected to swell by nearly 50% over the next six years to roughly $100 billion in U.S. retail sales. Much of that growth is projected to come from consumers who in growing numbers are buying workout clothes for non-workout purposes, while traditional athletic brands like Nike face increased competition from lifestyle apparel makers pushing more athletic-inspired clothes.

Nike conducts roughly 30% of its annual revenues from sales of apparel; the majority of sales come from footwear. Mr. Parker said apparel is considered one of the biggest growth opportunities for the company and that "we're going to apply basically the same approach to apparel as we have in footwear."

Summing Up

Nike is in business to satisfy its customers.

So is the NFL.

So are the players.

Only by doing that will team owners, aka shareholders, be happy campers and realize satisfactory profitability on their funds invested.

All successful businesses need to have happy customers and for the NFL, that means a happy and satisfied fan base. Thus, frequently it's necessary for the owners to fire some of the existing players, aka entertainers, and hire new ones to replace them.

Because when it comes to business, big or small, customers and advertisers are the ones paying the bills and therefore always in charge as the people who are really calling the shots. It's that simple.

So let's stay tuned as big and necessary changes are on their way to the NFL.

That's my take.

Thanks. Bob.