An Educational Imperative

Young students participating in class. Photo Courtesy of Tufts Now

Danny Zeng | August 22, 2013

This morning’s Journal had an op-ed titled “An Exit Strategy for Bad Teachers.” The article highlights a recent study by National Bureau of Economic Research that suggests no loss but gains in student achievement when young, enthusiastic teachers replace older, near-retirement colleagues in Illinois. Early retirement initiative is thus estimated to be more cost-effective than reducing classroom size.  Perhaps it is time to be innovative and radical with our thinking in order to improve K-12 in this country.

Some background on where U.S. stands in education internationally from Professor Paul Peterson and others: slightly less than one-third of U.S. students are considered proficient in Math and Reading, placing us 32nd and 17th, respectively among nations participating in PISA (Program for International Students Assessment), a representative report card of 15-year-old students across 65 countries. Texas is slightly above U.S. national average on Math, but we are below the national average on Reading.

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The ethnic discrepancy is also significant if not more troubling. Whites and Asians are significantly more proficient in math and reading than other ethnic groups. Hispanic students have the lowest proficiency in reading, at a meager 5%; while blacks show the lowest proficiency in math, at 11%.  This is and should not be acceptable for anyone who’s serious about improving the education system in the U.S.

Why does this matter for the U.S? From the same paper, the authors cited research showing that testing scores are correlated to a country’s long-term economic growth. Standards and accountability remain important if the U.S. is serious in maintaining its economic prowess. Professor Peterson estimates an additional $1 trillion gain in wealth per year if we improve math proficiency to the level of South Korea (58%). That has the potential of wiping out our federal deficit, in addition to ensuring long-term growth and prosperity.

With the $4 million Mr. Kim buzzing up a free-market debate about education policy recently in the Journal, perhaps it is time to consider what can be done to spark improvement in our own education system. Korean education system, one of the best in the world by international standards, is supported by a network of tutoring services known as hagwons, some of which are national enterprises that are publicly traded. This free-spirit, laissez-fair style of education relies on customer (student) feedback, competition, and meritocracy may seem “ruthless” and radical, but it is apparently well-received: “In a 2010 survey of 6,600 students at 116 high schools conducted by the Korean Educational Development Institute, Korean teenagers gave their hagwon teachers higher scores across the board than their regular schoolteachers.”

Here in the United States, we tend to shut down our educational apparatus against free-market experiment, as the word “reform” will incite rapid backlash from teachers’ unions. This is not to say that the hagwon model is operable here in the U.S., but neither can one suggest the current system if operable either. Against the failure prominently illustrated by the graph above – the result of our official education system – what’s there to lose against new educational experiments?

5 Economic Terms Misused Often by Liberals

The Liberal Trifecta Photo Courtesy of liberalwhoppers.com

Danny Zeng | August 13, 2013

(A similar version of this article was first published on PolicyMic on August 12th, 2013)

The President’s recent economic speech in Knox College and the intense subsequent media interest have prompted me to explore the following often-misused economic statistics by Liberals:

1. Unemployment Rate. Whenever the official U.S. monthly unemployment rate ticks down, it becomes world news. I often receive my monthly BLS job report on Twitter: 7.4% for July. While the official rate had gone down slightly from June, and far from the 10% we saw a few years ago, this statistic is overrated and masks weaknesses in the labor market. The official government unemployment rate is an incomplete indicator of joblessness: It does not count those who have stopped looking for work, and it says nothing about net change in jobs as compared to expectation from economists — we came under expectation in July. About 4 million people gave up looking for work in July. Many jobs created were part-time, partly as result of businesses’ wariness regarding Obamacare compliance. In order to boost employment numbers and avoid political backlash, the White House recently suspended enforcement of the employer mandate in Obamacare for one year, a desperate attempt to spur job growth prior to the 2014 election, even if it means shooting themselves in the foot.

U6unemployed

The U6 unemployment rate, which is the broadest reported indicator that accounts for underemployment and those who are only “marginally attached to the workforce,” still stands at 14%. This statistic remained flat for the last 12 months. While the official unemployment rate has gone down marginally, we still have 11.5 million people without work. That should be our top focus as a country and we should not pat ourselves on the back every month when the number fluctuates slightly in either direction.

2. Median Household Income. The president said in the same speech at Knox College, “The average American earns less than what he or she did in 1999.” I scratched my head and thought maybe the president was referring to census numbers that show a reduction in median household income. If so, his statement accounts solely for income and fails to assess wealth gained during the period. The census definition of income excludes taxes and non-cash benefits. This method would peg a rich, retired couple with much wealth in financial securities as poor, as their income will be dramatically less as result of retirement. Using a more extreme example, assume the U.S. government takes all of our income and redistributes it back to us through transfers. Our median household income would be zero, despite the fact that we’ll have government transfers to sustain household consumption. Therefore, the measure does not capture financial well-being and consumption very well. Average (mean or median) American households have actually gained in after-tax income, according to the CBO graph. According to economists Bruce Meyer and James Sullivan, median income and consumption both rose by more than 50% in real terms between 1980 and 2009.

CBO Average Household Income

The President continues: “this growing inequality not just of result, inequality of opportunity — this growing inequality is not just morally wrong, it’s bad economics. Because when middle-class families have less to spend, guess what, businesses have fewer consumers.” Scott Winship of Brookings discussed the effect of inequality, growth, and opportunity back in April, saying there is scant evidence that supports the proposition that inequality hampers growth. The President here also unveils the premise of his economic worldview. He seems to believe that consumption creates demand that then creates supply. According to this logic, the economic remedy would simply constitute putting more dollars into the pockets of middle-class families. Where are these dollars coming from? Businesses themselves? Or Government? The President seems to suggest that more middle-class spending power could come from the rich (mathematically it wouldn’t make sense for it to come from the poor). If only would the rich share their slice of the pie (redistribution), then businesses will thrive. He is not talking about opportunity here; the President is talking about redistribution. How does spending more money solve the “inequality of opportunity” if not for us to have the same “opportunity” to spend more? And “spend more” necessarily implies more dollars, whose origins I’ve discussed above must come from the rich. Thus, this is a loopy argument that mistaken income for consumption, which in turn distorts economic policy. Unless, of course, one buys into the argument that redistribution constitutes wealth-creation…

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A Higher Ed with Even Higher Disappointment

Photo Courtesy of Business Insider

Danny Zeng | August 2nd, 2013

Recently I have had very engaging conversations with a couple of close friends regarding the status of higher education today. The United States is famous for its world-class higher education system that continues to attract world’s top talents. It is reported in 2011 that about 746,000 international students, or 6% of college student population, studied in the United States. Our nation’s graduate programs are filled with students of other national origins. Many immigrant families aspire to send their kids through some of world’s most renowned universities. My friends and I discussed the purpose of modern higher education and in particular how does liberal education fits in present higher education model. As a student of both liberal and practical education, I often muse at the gaps within my own disciplines. As a government major, I don’t find my curriculum challenging enough. Too little emphasis – if any – is placed on political philosophy, international politics, statecraft, and geopolitics. More finance theory, grounded in economics, should be taught in business schools so the practical how-to can be traced to a solid theoretical foundation for problem solving. Indeed, there is very little curricular guidance from the University beyond mere degree completion – meet and consult over a checklist.  Wall Street Journal recently had a thought-provoking essay celebrating the demise of literature on college campuses. The author argues that alas students could enjoy and truly savor literature for their insight and brilliance without being constantly drowned in the intellectual cesspool of GPA gamesmanship:

“The destruction of the humanities by the humanities is, finally, coming to a halt. No more will literature, as part of an academic curriculum, extinguish the incandescence of literature. No longer will the reading of, say, “King Lear” or D.H. Lawrence’s “Women in Love” result in the flattening of these transfiguring encounters into just two more elements in an undergraduate career—the onerous stuff of multiple-choice quizzes, exam essays and homework assignments.”

McKinsey & Company published a study in May that surveyed more than 4,900 college graduates and made the following observations:

  • Mismatch of Skills. Nearly half of graduates say that they are in jobs that don’t require a degree
  • Underprepared. About one-third of graduates did not feel college prepared them well for the workplace
  • Buyer’s Remorse. Half of graduates would have chosen a different major or school
  • Brand Shoppers. Half of graduates didn’t look at graduation rate; four in ten did not look at job-placement or salary records
  • Lack of Opportunities. Four in ten of Top 100 colleges couldn’t get jobs in their chosen field
  • Underutilization of Recruitment Resources. Less than 40% used career services; less than 30% tapped into alumni network

The dearth of liberal education on college campuses has been an ongoing phenomenon that faculty, students, and administrators seem to have complacently embraced as inevitable. While traditional liberal education has been sacrificed at the altar of knowledge for transient vocational training, skill workshops, and non-core educational benefits, institutions seemingly cannot even live up to its watered-down mission. If higher education fails to enrich our souls and inspire our appetite for knowledge, in addition to failing to train the right talents for today’s economy, then what is the purpose of higher education? Did not the evolution (or devolution) from liberal education to highly specialized, vocational trainings produce a modern, functional learning model? If higher ed cannot live up to the latter and arguably easier part of the bargain, then the entire system would be nothing more than an unfortunate, generational brain drain. Understanding this question is not only indispensable to satiate our own desire for knowledge and search for intellectual wholesomeness, but indeed it will be critical to the sustainability of an informed citizenry – a prerequisite for a functional democracy.