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.


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?


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.

Forget Reason: Self Defense is Simply Human Nature


State Rep. Allen Fletcher speaking in favor of HB 972 in the Texas House
Courtesy of Austin American-Statesman

Danny Zeng | May 6, 2013

Washington Post did a followed-up story titled, “A clear case of self-defense rallies supporters of gun rights,” about an incidence that happened in January, when a Georgian Mother shot a burglar who broke into her house when both of her children were home. That’s the point that defenders of gun rights have been making time after time: it’s about self-defense; it always has been.

In the past few months, this debate was distorted in the public discourse to support a menu of “reasonable” measures. Whenever a piece of legislation is broken down into component parts, people are more likely to support individual parts than the legislation as a whole.  That’s the polling tactic used by gun-control advocates throughout this debate. It’s the same tactic used to push Obamacare through. An overwhelming majority, Republicans and Democrats, supported provisions such as a coverage for those with pre-existing conditions, tax credits for individuals and small businesses, and closing the Medicare “doughnut hole;” even though Obamacare overall remains divisive. The Texas Legislature is presently wrestling with campus carry bills. The argument for us is still the same: it’s about self-defense.

Though an important detail ignored – intentionally or otherwise – in the WaPo story is the burglar’s history of criminality. ABC reported in January, “Last year he [Paul Slater] served 6 months in jail for battery and has at least six other arrests on his record.” The story never even mentions this point. In fact, the lingering impression is almost sympathetic to Zakia Slater’s (wife of the burglar) predicament. Her role as a schoolteacher, a mother of six, and a depicted “victim” in the situation attempt to humanize the other side of the conflict. This distracts from the fact that her husband’s a criminal, an important fact that underlies the whole logic behind gun-rights advocates for self-defense.

Same rationale, rooted in human nature, applies to support for campus carry. Why should we as college students living in one of the most high-density areas in Austin deny possibilities of irrational violence and criminality  and deprive ourselves of effective means to self-defense? Simple faiths in the security of our campus and the professionalism of our police force have failed to prevent campus shootings and violent crimes in recent years. DOE’s Office of Postsecondary Education reports 649 burglaries, 124 motor vehicle theft, 66 aggravated assaults, and 51 forcible sex offense, and 33 robberies on Texas college campuses.  In this sense, to be against campus carry is to be for status quo, a situation that exposes us to dangerous and perhaps irrational minds in our society.

Melinda Herman did what any mother would do for her children. In moments of inexplicable chaos, I can’t imagine any self-preservative motive greater than one’s inherent instinct to protect people we love. I do realize that in the Hermans’ case, the gun is within the confines of her home, but the underlying logic is nonetheless the same: the possession of a firearm is the only effective mean to stop a violent perpetrator, as opposed to a slew of ridiculous guidelines offered by universities across the country:

  • Wichita State University counsels students in the following manner: “If the person(s) is causing death or serious physical injury to others and you are unable to run or hide you may choose to be compliant, play dead, or fight for your life.”
  • The University of Miami guidelines suggest that when all else fails, students should act “as aggressively as possible” against a shooter. The guidelines, taken from a Department of Homeland Security directive, also recommend “throwing items and improvising weapons,” as well as “yelling.”
  • Otterbein University, in Ohio, tells students to “breathe to manage your fear” and informs them, “You may have to take the offensive if the shooter(s) enter your area. Gather weapons (pens, pencils, books, chairs, etc.) and mentally prepare your attack.”
  • West Virginia University advises students that if the situation is dire, they should “act with physical aggression and throw items at the active shooter.” These items could include “student desks, keys, shoes, belts, books, cell phones, iPods, book bags, laptops, pens, pencils, etc.”
  • The University of Colorado at Boulder’s guidelines state, “You and classmates or friends may find yourselves in a situation where the shooter will accost you. If such an event occurs, quickly develop a plan to attack the shooter … Consider a plan to tackle the shooter, take away his weapon, and hold him until police arrive.

The Texas House gave Rep. Fletcher’s campus carry bill, which includes an “opt out” provision allowing institutions to decide its own gun policy, a preliminary OK over the weekend. The eyes will now be on the Senate and the Lieutenant Governor who has the power to reassign Birdwell’s bill to another committee. The fight goes on. We are that much closer to a more sensible campus carry law that would contribute to the safety of our campuses throughout Texas.

Tagging School Children Like a Boss

By Danny Zeng

Courtesy of Google Images

Using RFID technology to track students whereabouts is about the most perverse way to reap the benefits of the RFID technology imaginable, but that is exactly what two schools in San Antonio are currently doing according to the Texas Tribune – and they are thinking about importing that concept into ASID! These schools will have data and knowledge about whom students contact, what they do, whom they hang out with, etc. Sounds like big government yet? The alleged goal is to reduce truancy, but if we are willing to sacrifice privacy rights and common decency of treating school children as human beings, by frankly tagging and tracking them like animals, then what is the point of sending students to school in the first place? Schools will in effect evolve from a center of gravity for civic education, where students have opportunities to gain community service experience, learn social skills, hone on leadership abilities, practice communication and organizational savvy, to a indoctrination factory that campaigns against personal liberty and privacy. Instead of educating students about personal responsibility and care for one’s community, we are introducing students to a new world of technocracy, the worst kind, where we cultivate this notion that every problem can be solved by heartless, brainless, emotionless machinery and gadgetry for cheap.

Currently, the program affects more than 6,700 students. If successful – seems to be framed purely on a cost ground – the program can be potentially expanded to 112 schools with a reach of over 100,000 students across the state. According to the schools, the new “smart” chip intends to increase safety and security, increase attendance, and to provide “multi-purpose” student IDs to students. The schools emphasize the cost-saving potential of the technology and the improvement to safety. I call that unnecessary playing with emotions; parents can be easily demagogued into throwing money and liberty away in the name of safety for their children. These goals simply ignore the real issue: encroachment of privacy rights. I would go as far as to argue that there should be constitutional cause of concerns for these types of programs, namely First and Fourth Amendment violations. If we have a truancy issue, I say we try to resolve that by engaging the parents. If we have a safety issue, I say we encourage more PTA actions, student awareness and collaboration with neighborhood police. If we are bleeding money away as result of truancy, I say we self-reflect and go after the root cause of the problem – how to draw students back to school – and to not ignore the tough issue and make a weak attempt at curing the symptom and not the disease all the while poisoning the civic culture of next generation of leaders for our state and our country.

Ballooning Student Loan Debt Threatens Our Nation’s Future

Graduation candidates celebrated on May 12 at the Centenary College commencement in Hackettstown, N.J. Courtesy of Associated Press. Retrieved from

By Danny Zeng

In a new report released by the Pew Research Center last Thursday, it has become apparent that student loan debt is now more of a burden to more families than ever. Throughout the 1990s, about one in ten households held educational loan debt. Today, that number has doubled to almost one fifth of households. According to the study, increasing student loan debt hurts the lowest income quintile of households the most. In 2007, as a share of the total household income, student loan debt was 15% for the lowest quintile. By 2010, that percentage had gone up to 24%, partly as result of decreasing income. This creates real financial challenges for low-income families, as student loan debt increasingly takes away greater proportion of their wealth. These households will probably have to repay their student loan debt sacrificing living expenses.

Some highlights from the report:

  • Average student loan debt in 2010 was $26,682. About 10% of indebted households have outstanding debt in excess of $62,000, well beyond the median income in this country.
  • For students attending a four-year public university, the average debt was $22,000
  • Almost half (44%) of the outstanding debt were owned by young people under the age of 35
  • Middle and upper-middle households suffered the most in the student loan crisis, with these groups owning 45% of all debt in 2010. For comparison, the poorest two-fifths owned 24%. The middle-fifth proportion had gone up by three percentage points from 2007 to 2010, from 20% to 23%.

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