Software Nerd

Thursday, August 31, 2006

School Choice

A lot of newspapers and radio-shows picked up the Aug 2006 study from the National Center for Education Statistics. A majority ran with a headline like: "Charter Schools do worse than Traditional Public schools". This was a case of sloppy journalists reporting on a sloppy "study".

If Charter schools were commonplace and evenly-spread across the US, a survey of the results from such schools could be compared against (similarly widespread and evenly available) traditional public schools. However, this is not the case. Charter schools have come into being primarily in areas where public schools have failed. Therefore, if a person doing such a study today were to take 150 Charter schools and compare them against over 6,000 traditional public schools from all over the country, they might find that Charter schools are just about average or even slightly below average. Yet, this is just what the study did, and just what their headline numbers report. This result is not surprising.

Take an example in my metro. The worst-performing public schools are in the inner city. Some of the suburbs have low-performing schools, but nowhere near as bad as the inner city. Other suburbs have schools that are near the nation's top scorers among public schools. The Charter schools in this metro tend to be in the inner city and some of the close-to-city suburbs. I would not expect the kids who leave inner-city public schools to attend inner-city charter schools to perform as well as the kids in the better suburbs. If they did, I'd be glad, but I know that the demographics of the population (basically parent's attitudes) are a huge factor in education. If one is trying to isolate a single factor -- the type of school -- one could compare each charter-school to the nearby public schools that would be realistic educational alternatives for those kids, not to an average of schools from all over the country.

The study also pretends to adjust for family-income differences, but does not do so. Instead, the researchers used an absurd measure of "% of students who get free-lunch" as a proxy, one that they themselves admit is weak. I don't think these researchers had a political bias; it is just that they take the typical rationalistic attitude of preferring deceptive precision over less-precisely known facts. (Perhaps they're products of public schools too!!)

Next, it seems obvious that if one were to trying to determine whether charter schools were serving kids better, one would want to distinguish between kids who just switched from a public school to a charter school and kids who have been in the charter school for (say) two or more years. The study makes no such attempt.

A good site on Charter Schools, "The Center for Education Reform", documents various measures that show that Charter schools are doing well. Perhaps they have their own axe to grind. However, a good researcher would have looked at the available facts and research, built on that and addressed that; the current study has simply ignored it.

Here are some of the statistics from the site mentioned above:
  • In the 2004-05 (the NCES study used 2003 data) school year, fourth grade charter school students in New York were 7.1 percent more proficient on the state’s English test and 7.7 percent more proficient on the math test than conventional public school students.
  • In 2005, a higher percentage of charter school students in Massachusetts, compared with students in conventional public schools, scored proficient or advanced in the state’s assessment test – 9.2 percent, 8.7 percent, and 8.3 percent higher in English, math, and science, respectively..
  • In a comparison of African-American students, those attending charter schools outperformed the students in conventional public schools in Michigan’s 2004 assessment test – 46 percent of eighth grade African-American charter students passed the math assessment compared with 21 percent among African-American eighth graders statewide..
  • In 2005, charter schools in California showed stronger year-to-year improvement than conventional public schools, especially in Los Angeles. Statewide, charter schools scored an average gain of 28 points in the state assessment compared with a 20-point gain posted by conventional public schools..
  • The percentage of charter school students in Florida who tested proficient in the state’s reading assessment has grown faster than the gains posted by conventional public school students – charter school students rose from 55 percent to 58 percent, compared with an increase of 54 percent to 56 percent among conventional public school students.

However, there's something more important than all this: 1 million kids now attend charter schools. It is a choice that their parents made. If this study is used as a device to convince other parents not to opt for Charter schools, I think that's wrong, but I can live with that; smart parents know what they're doing. However, the real problem is that this survey might be used to convince law-makers to prevent parents from having a choice. That would be a blow to the already pathetically slow school-reforms in the U.S..

Monday, August 28, 2006

The missing constitution

The U.S. Constitution, and the philosophical arguments that surrounded it, have ensured that the U.S. is still the freest of any sizable nation. The constitution's main contribution is to keep democracy in check: ensuring that elected law makers cannot make any laws they like.

Unfortunately, there was no similar framework in foreign policy to guide government action. Consequently, the U.S. has acted with varying temporal rules, as suited the current mood of her democratic opinion or her government. It is not that the principles were wrong; rather, there were no principles.

Today, the U.S. pursues a war and many complain that the French aren't enthusiatic supporters. Does past experience show that the French can trust the U.S. to be steady though? What if U.S. public opinion changes? There have been times when the U.S. has asked Israel to show restraint. When Egypt took over the Suez, the British and French wanted to go to war, but the U.S. held them back. Foreign policy is a realm of moods that fluctuate between anger and complacency, never settling on a principled approach that can be pursued long term.

A pragmatist may argue that one cannot be principled in foreign policy. Sometimes, for instance, the U.S. might need to prop up one dictator to prevent a worse one from taking over; at other times, a particular dictator may be preferable to a democracy -- e.g. an religious-extreme democracy (which, of course, would soon morph into a religous dictatorship). However, such thinking is flawed. If it is right to prop up a dictator -- and I will grant the possibility -- then it must be right because of some underlying principle.

One obvious principle is that the country will act to defend its interests. However, I think that is too broad. I do not have specific suggestions, but I think that if one were to look back at history, one could come up with a set of principles that are better than none. I think that a good government should act by set of broad principles that all -- citizen, friend and foe -- can rely upon.

Update (Aug 29): "The Kalamazoo Objectivist" makes a similar point, saying that we must have a criteria for going to war. A government ought to have objective and known criteria and rules for the way is will act. Foreign affairs andwars should be no exception. (HT: Gus van Horn for pointing me to this blog.)

Sunday, August 27, 2006

"Morning after" pill goes over-the-counter

The FDA has allowed one type of "morning after" pill (called Plan-B) to be sold over the counter to anyone showing proof of being 18 years old or more. Some months ago, a senior employee of the FDA resigned when the FDA disallowed OTC sales. She said she resigned because the FDAs ruling had nothing to do with science. I believe her. The FDA is a stumbling block at the best of times, making their own guesses about a patient's risk-reward thinking. In this case, however, Republican Christians reared their ugly head.

Then Hillary Clinton and another senator held up a new FDA appointment in the senate. So, Bush "paid them off" by allowing OTC sales. Imagine that! Hillary actually fought for individual rights. Whatever her motives, I'm happy about the ruling, and also happy about the small defeat for Christianity. Listen to what one of these idiots says: "How does the FDA plan to prevent Plan B from being purchased by child predators and rapists and used to cover their crimes?" said Dr. David Stevens, executive director of the 17,000-member Christian Medical Association based in Bristol, Tenn., in a prepared release. Why don't these guys go join their cousins in middle-east!

Saturday, August 26, 2006

There are others who think Hezbollah didn't win

In a recent blog, I said
I'm not completely disheartened by the recent Israeli campaign in Lebanon. ... ...Yes, the Israelis were overly concerned about civilian casualties. I would have loved to see the Hezbollah destroyed. ... ... I criticize the Israelis for their modern loss of moral certainty,... ... I also do not think that the better thing would have been to fight no war at all.
As much as I would love to see Israel execute a clear, ruthless and decisive campaign, I also know that isn't going to be. I therefore view what happened as one step in a long series of steps. According to an op-ed by Amir Taheri in the WSJ (Aug 25th), there are signs that Israel's prodding of Lebanon in the recent campaign is having some effect. it is definitely worth a read.

Meanwhile, Kofi Annan is being predictably unhelpful. He says that U.N. troops "will not be used along Lebanon’s long and porous border with Syria to stop any shipments of arms reaching Hizballah" and "Troops are not going in there to disarm – let’s be clear.” The Israeli's need to nip this in the bud. They should ask the U.N. to hold off deploying until the U.N. can stop talking about all the things they aren't going to do, and instead explain what they plan to do. They should say: "don't come here unless you're serious about U.N. resolutions". The U.S. also needs to back them up.

It is important not to take the pressure off the Lebanese. They should understand that Israel expects a regular (if not uniform) improvement in their handling of the Hezbollah and is willing to help if they stay on track and hurt if they do not.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

New Orleans revamps its Schools

After Hurricane Katrina, many of New Orleans's public schools have changed to being charter schools. The Wall Street Journal (Aug 24th, 2006) reports that before the hurricane, the city had 5 charter schools out of a total 128; in the coming 2006-07 school year the city will have 31 charter schools out of a reduced total of 53. I would guess that no other city has close to 50% of its students attend charter schools. (For the country as a whole, it's about 2% of students.)

This is good news. It will be interesting to see how this unfolds over the next few years. Most of the teachers and administrators in the charter schools are the same ones who were previously employed in regular public schools; however, a system, and the individual responsibility it either encourages or stifles, can make a big difference. One principal is quoted as saying: "As a principal in the public schools before, I never thought about the budget... Now, I look at it differently. Here is a USA Today story on the same topic.)

The teachers' union, and others with their philosophy, criticize charter school, claiming that they do no better (and even do worse) than regular public schools "after controlling for several school characteristics". I read that qualification as saying the following: "All the good students went to charter schools and did better; however, that's not because of the school, that's because of other characteristics of the students". Well, so be it... if all the charter schools do is offer a safe haven to student who want to study, more power to them.

Charter schools are far from an ideal solution to the current problems with U.S. K-12 education, and some charter schools are really bad -- like the Charter school in California that was teaching students Mexican nationalistic ideas. The best alternative -- privatized education -- has zero political support. Better than Charter schools would be a system of education tax-credits; however, since that is something the poor (who pay hardly any tax) won't get, it too has no political support. For that matter, charter schools themselves do not have much support, and have been growing ever so slowly. Still, overall, they are better than the current system.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Movies by Mail

A while back, we subscribed to movies by mail. For $15 a month (+ tax) you can have two movies checked out. Netflix made this popular, but we use Blockbuster's service, which also includes 2 coupons each month for free movies from a bricks-and-mortar Blockbuster store. Mail-services are more convenient than stopping by the store, and the selection is huge. Before we signed up, we would often go to the Blockbuster store and not know what to bring back if we had already seen the "latest decent movie". Now, we have a large list of movies in our "queue" and Blockbuster keeps sending us stuff from that queue.

For this year, I set myself a goal of seeing at least 40 movies -- "adding values to life". I've already crossed that number of DVDs. If I remove the TV shows (like 4 seasons of Curb Your Enthusiasm) and the ones that were ordered primarily for our son (like Wallace and Gromit), we've still gone through over 30 movies that we really chose to see. Just for the heck of it, here's the list. Of these, my favorite -- by far -- was "Million Dollar Baby". Other than the ones that are struck out, they're all worth watching.

12 Monkeys (1995)
Absence of Malice (1981)
Accused (1988)
Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
Big Clock (1948)
Catch Me If You Can (2002)
Cinderella Man (2005)
Firewall (2006)
Green Mile (1999)
High Crimes (2002)
High and Low (1962)
Hoosiers (1986)
King Kong [WS] (2005)
Let's Do It Again (1975)
Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976)
Masala (1992)
Maverick (1994)
Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Nell (1994)
P.D. James: A Taste for Death (1989)
Piece of the Action (1977)
Red Beard (1965)
Rehearsal for Murder (1982)
Seven Samurai (1954)
Shakespeare: Macbeth (1978)
Shakespeare: Julius Caesar (1950)
Shakespeare: Othello (1990)
Third Man (1949)
Thomas Crown Affair (1999)
Way We Live Now (2001)
Yojimbo (1961)

Tuesday, August 15, 2006


I hope it isn't the contrarian in me, but I'm not completely disheartened by the recent Israeli campaign in Lebanon.

Yes, the Israelis were overly concerned about civilian casualties. I would have loved to see the Hezbollah destroyed. It's revolting to see concrete-bound people claim that the Hezbollah are freedom-fighters. Do they realize that being bossed around by a dictator is not "freedom" just because one reduces the number of generations up the tree of evolution where you and the dictator share a common ancestor! That makes a freedom-fighter out of every man who picks up arms and makes his dad or brother the new dictator.

It is true that Israeli and U.S. public opinion came down on the side of thinking that Israel gave up too soon. The official Arab reaction was muted. Even the Syrians declared a few times that they were moving their army to increasing levels of readiness, but did little else. Yes, Assad came out after the war and spoke about taking back the Golan Heights; but, relative to past Arab reaction, he pretty much kept his trap shut. [Iran is a different story.]

The problem is, I do not think Israelis would have supported actions that would be required for the next phase, of really finishing off the Hezbollah while it hides among a sympathetic population. As a result, the Israelis would have ended up like the U.S. in Iraq, not defeating the enemy anyway, and simply bogged down trying to hold territory. The next phase would have been a turn in Israeli opinion, asking to have their boys come back home.

So, while I criticize the Israelis for their modern loss of moral certainty, I cannot criticize their politicians for understanding this. By stopping at this point, the Israeli government actually increases the likelihood of public support when it starts its next campaign against the Hezbollah.

I also do not think that the better thing would have been to fight no war at all. While it's revolting to see some Lebanese celebrating in the streets, declaring that Hezbollah won the war and is their country's savior, those are the images one can expect. On the other hand, there are also more Lebanese who realize that something has to be done about the Hezbollah. Less of them can evade what should have been obvious already. Sometimes, one has to light a fire under people, to goad them into action.

Some say that non-Hezbollah Lebanese are powerless to change the status quo. In think this is false. It may be true in the short term. However, if they have the will and motivation, they can do it. A few years ago who thought the Syrians would leave either? Every faction of the Lebanese has some history of military action. I think the possibility for change is higher than it was before the war.

Such change can go either way; it could pitch Lebanon into civil war -- but, that is not Israel's problem. The Israelis have given the Lebanese more than a huge prod -- they gave them a hard kick in the rump. More of them realize that something must be done about the status quo. The next fight is essentially internal, and Lebanese. If the good guys lose, Israel's next war might be against the Lebanese army. However, I don't think this is a foregone conclusion.

Replacing one UN resolution with another seems to be an empty victory, even a victory for the bad guys. However, more than that has happened. Israel has moved from asking that the UN resolution be enforced to demonstrating that it is willing to act if it is not. Destroying some of Hezbollah's infrastructure and weapons is not something to be pooh-poohed either.

The biggest problem I see in the final outcome is that a larger force of U.N. troops may forestall a future Israeli attempt to attack Lebanon again. This is the biggest additional negative that Israel has created. It is extremely important that the Israelis monitor the progress of the U.N. forces and Lebanese army and only pull back to the extent that they (Israel) is happy with the progress those new forces are making.

Meanwhile, Israel needs to start planning the next invasion, which might be required in a year or two: how will they neutralize the UN? what lessons did they learn from this war that they can apply to the next? is there a way to take out the media stations they failed to take out this time? is there a way to reduce the threats from incoming missiles? is there a better way to shut down supply routes from Syria? how do they improve ground intelligence? is there a better way for them to take the initiative and surprize the enemy? and so on...

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Big Government

From time to time, people will ask: "but, how will the roads be private under capitalism?" While one can take a stab at the answer, I don't think one can really say how a privatized system will unfold. As an economy is privatized, smart people will figure out ways to get things to work; early experiences will teach people what long-term protective clauses they need in their contracts, and so on. While road-privatization evolves slowly, there are many other places to cut.

For instance, the State of Florida's web site lists various Agencies, Committees, Commissions and Water Districts. Scan through the list, and then consider that there are 50 states, 100's of large cities, and the over-arching Federal government! One can be sure that there are many things in this list that ought to be cut pretty pronto... (the "Barber's Board" for instance?)

FLORIDA State Agencies:

  • Advisory Council On Environmental Education

  • Agency For Persons With Disabilities

  • Agency For Workforce Innovation

  • Agriculture & Consumer Services, Department Of

  • Attorney General's Office

  • Auditor General, Office Of

  • Board Of Education

  • Board Of Governors

  • Business & Professional Regulation, Department Of

  • Canaveral Port Authority

  • Central Florida Jobs & Education Partnership, Inc

  • Children & Families, Department Of

  • Children's Home Society

  • Citrus, Department Of

  • City Government Office

  • Commerce, Department Of

  • Community Affairs, Department Of

  • Consumer Support Services, Inc

  • Corrections, Department Of

  • County Government Office

  • Division Of Administrative Hearings

  • Education, Department Of

  • Elder Affairs, Department Of

  • Enterprise Florida

  • Enterprise Information Technology Services

  • Environmental Protection, Department Of

  • Ethics Commission, State Of Florida

  • Expressway Authority

  • Financial Services, Department Of

  • Florida Export Finance Corp

  • Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission

  • Florida Gas Utilities

  • Florida Housing Finance Corporation

  • Florida League Of Cities

  • Florida Marine Research Institutes

  • Florida Municipal Power Agency

  • Florida National Guard

  • Florida Partnership For School Readiness

  • Florida School For The Deaf And The Blind

  • Florida Solar Energy Center

  • Florida Space Authority

  • Governor's Council On Indian Affairs

  • Governor's Office

  • Guardian Ad Litem

  • Gulf Coast Jewish Family Services

  • Health And Rehabilitative Services, Dept Of

  • Health Care Administration, Agency For

  • Health Councils, Local

  • Health Department Of/Childrens Medical Services

  • Health Department Of/Laboratory Services

  • Health, Department Of

  • Healthy Start Coalition

  • Highway Safety & Motor Vehicles, Department Of

  • House Of Representatives

  • Immokalee Water & Sewer District

  • Independent/Non-Profit Entity

  • Insurance Rehabilitation & Liquidation

  • Joint Administrative Procedures Committee

  • Joint Committee Information On Technology

  • Joint Leg Committee On Everglades Oversight

  • Joint Legislative Auditing Committee

  • Judicial

  • Juvenile Justice, Department Of

  • Labor & Employment Security, Department Of

  • Law Enforcement, Department Of

  • Legal Affairs, Department Of

  • Legal Services

  • Legislative Committee On Intergovernmental Relations

  • Legislature, Florida State Of

  • Lottery, Department Of

  • Management Services, Department Of

  • Marine Fisheries Commission

  • Marine Institutes

  • Military Affairs, Department Of

  • Myflorida Com

  • Ofc Of Program Policy Analysis & Gov Accountability

  • Office Of Legislative Services

  • Other State Governments Information

  • Parole Commission

  • Prison Industries

  • Private Industry Council

  • Public Counsel, Office Of The

  • Public Service Commission

  • Receiving Facilities

  • Regional Planning Council

  • Respect Of Florida

  • Revenue, Department Of

  • Senate

  • State Court System

  • State, Department Of

  • Statewide Advocacy Council

  • Suncom

  • Transit Agency

  • Transportation, Department Of

  • University Press Of Florida

  • Veterans' Affairs, Department Of

  • Visit Florida/Tourism

  • Volunteer Florida

  • Water Management District

  • Water Management Review Com

  • West Fl Community Cares Center

Under the "Business & Professional Regulation, Department Of", one has...

  • Asbestos Licensing Unit

  • Athlete Agents

  • Barbers Board

  • Board of Accountancy

  • Board of Architecture and Interior Design

  • Board of Auctioneers

  • Board of Cosmetology

  • Board of Employee Leasing Companies

  • Board of Landscape Architecture

  • Board of Pilot Commissioners

  • Board of Professional Geologists

  • Board of Professional Surveyors and Mappers

  • Board of Veterinary Medicine

  • Boxing Commission

  • Building Code Administrators and Inspectors

  • Bureau of Child Labor

  • Bureau of Elevator Safety

  • Bureau of Farm Labor

  • Business and Professional Licenses

  • Business and Professional Regulation Contacts

  • Community Association Managers

  • Condos, Coops, Timeshares

  • Construction industry Licensing Board

  • Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco

  • Division of Hotels and Restaurants

  • Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering

  • Division of Real Estate

  • Electrical Contractors Licensing Board

  • Labor Organizations

  • Land Sales

  • Mobile Homes

  • Online Licensing and License Search

  • Professional Licensing Bureau of Education and Testing

  • Talent Agents

  • Yacht and Ship Brokers

  • Under the title of "Other Governmental Agencies"
  • Administrative Hearings

  • Board of Administration

  • Citrus - Econ. Research

  • Comptroller

  • Division of State Fire Marshal

  • Enterprise Florida

  • FL Board of Education Universitites

  • Florida Colleges & Universities

  • Florida Commission on Human Relations

  • Florida Community Colleges System

  • Florida Space Authority

  • Florida Sports Foundation

  • Governor's Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development

  • Guardian Ad Litem

  • Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida

  • OPPAGA's FL Monitor

  • Office of Financial Regulation

  • Office of Insurance Regulation

  • PERC

  • Retirement

  • State Group Insurance

  • Visit Florida (FLAUSA)

  • Workforce

Under the title of "Committees, Commissions and other Organizations"

  • ADA Working Group

  • Able Trust

  • Aging with Dignity

  • Chief Information Officers Council

  • Commission on Ethics

  • Commission on the Homeless

  • Commission on the Status of Women

  • Conflict Resolution

  • Constitution Revision

  • Corr. Medical Authority

  • Corrections Commission

  • Emerging Tech. Comm.

  • FBBIB - Florida Black Business Investment

  • FL Division of Blind Services

  • FL Elections Commission

  • FL Geographical Info. Bd.

  • FL Geological Survey

  • FL Independent Living Council

  • FL KidCare

  • Florida Statewide Advocacy Council

  • Florida Sterling Council

  • GAP Commission

  • Growth Management Study Commission

  • Human Relations Commission

  • Inspector Generals Net.

  • JOSHUA, Judicial System

  • Justice Administrative Commission (JAC)



  • Statewide Public Guardianship Office

  • TEAM FL Partnership

  • Tech. R&D Authority

  • Transportation Commission

  • Transportation Disadvantaged

  • Volunteer Florida

Under "Water Districts"

  • Northwest Florida

  • South Florida

  • Southwest Florida

  • St. Johns River

  • Suwannee River

  • Water Management Districts