Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Bill Gates: Charter Schools and Good Teachers

Bill Gates wrote a very interesting article in the New York Times today about his experience in trying to reform the public school system. It’s a must read for those of us who care deeply about our children’s future.

Here are some excerpts from the article:

Nine years ago, the [Bill and Melinda Gates] foundation decided to invest in helping to create better high schools, and we have made over $2 billion in grants.

Many of the small schools that we invested in did not improve students' achievement in any significant way. These tended to be the schools that did not take radical steps to change the culture, such as allowing the principal to pick the team of teachers or change the curriculum…

But a few of the schools that we funded achieved something amazing. They replaced schools with low expectations and low results with ones that have high expectations and high results. These schools are not selective in whom they admit, and they are overwhelmingly serving kids in poor areas, most of whose parents did not go to college. Almost all of these schools are charter schools…

It is invigorating and inspirational to meet with the students and teachers in these schools and hear about their aspirations. They talk about how the schools they were in before did not challenge them and how their new school engages all of their abilities…

It is amazing how big a difference a great teacher makes versus an ineffective one. Research shows that there is only half as much variation in student achievement between schools as there is among classrooms in the same school. If you want your child to get the best education possible, it is actually more important to get him assigned to a great teacher than to a great school.

Gates is right. Parents need to be able to choose where their kids go to school. The principals of those schools need to have the authority to hire, fire, and change the curriculum. This is how American colleges and universities work and we have the best higher education system in the world. The public school system doesn’t work this way and it’s among the worst in the developed world.

Hopefully, Gates' research will provide a powerful catalyst for changing our hidebound and failed public education system.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Obama ethics

The day after President Obama was sworn into office, he issued an executive order prohibiting administration appointees from accepting positions in federal agencies they had lobbied in the previous two years. Democrats heralded it as a new era of ethical behavior in government.

Two days later, Obama had to issue a “wavier” to his own rules to appoint William Lynn as Deputy Secretary of Defense. William Lynn headed government relations with Raytheon, which is one of the largest defense contractors in the country. While Lynn headed government lobbying at Raytheon, the company spent more than $14.5 million lobbying the House, Senate, DARPA, Defense Department, Energy Department, Treasury Department, State Department, and others. The payoff? $54 BILLION in direct government contracts, and more if you include their subcontracts to other companies. Lynn's appointment clearly violates Obama’s new ethics guidelines, which is why he had to issue a “waiver” to his own rules.

Yesterday Timothy Geithner won conformation as Obama’s Treasury Secretary. Geithner was previously president the New York Federal Reserve Bank, which was part of the monetary shenanigans that helped cause the economic mess we are in today. Geithner failed to pay self-employment taxes for several years while he worked at the International Monetary Fund. He also made false deductions on his tax return relating to child care. Geithner did not make any attempt to pay his back taxes until after Obama expressed his intent to nominate Geithner to be Secretary of Treasury. If you would have refused to pay your back taxes for years, the IRS would have put lien on your bank account, garnished your wages, and sent you letters threatening jail. Ask Wesley Snipes who was sentenced to three years in prison for failing to pay back taxes. Geithner's political connections spared him from the type of treatment the rest of us get at the hands of the IRS.

Obama has only been president for a week yet we’re already finding huge ethical problems. I’m quite sure these aren’t the only ones because politicians of all stripes are by their very nature unethical and in this case hypocritical as well.

But hey, Obama’s heart is in the right place and he is trying to do the right thing, so who cares about a few transgressions? While I am in no way comparing Obama to these people, let's not forget that this was the exact argument made by left about all of their heros from Stalin to Castro.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Obama and the Old Truths

I was extraordinarily heartened by these words that the 44th President of the United States spoke at his inaugural today:

"Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends - hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism - these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history.

What is demanded then is a return to these truths."

I suspect that I will disagree with Obama on many specific policy prescriptions, just as I disagreed with George Bush. However, Obama is completely right that hard work, honesty, courage, fair play, tolerance, curiosity, and loyalty are the bedrock of civil society and progress. I really do wish that he would have included risk taking and the entrepreneurial spirit among his virtues.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Rating the Presidents

Another Presidential era has come and gone. So, it’s time to update my running list of post-WWII Presidents. Unfortunately, we have a new loser at the bottom of the heap. Hopefully, #44 will be better. Here’s the list:

The Relatively Good Presidents

Ronald Reagan

Good: Cut marginal tax rates by 30%. Helped defeat communism (along with Thatcher, Kohl, and the Pope). Reinvigorated our national spirit after Vietnam and Jimmy Carter. Rebuilt the military after its neglect during the Carter years.

Bad: Failed to do anything about growing government spending and debt.

Harry Truman

Good: Eliminated the war time economy to move us back to a free market, in spite of the advice of his Keynesian advisors to build tanks and bury them in the desert to keep the economy going. (Unfortunately, the Keynesian idiots are feeling their oats again today.) He also desegregated the armed forces and implemented the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe.

Mixed: Dropping of the atomic bomb to win WWII. This was seen as a successes but it is questionable at the same time.

Bad: Korean war

The Mixed Presidents

Bill Clinton

Good: Worked with the Republican Congress to balance the budget for the first time in a long time. Removed welfare from being an entitlement.

Bad: Invaded the Balkins. Failed to cement Russia in the West. Periodically sent cruise missiles to bomb Osama bin Laden, without any real plan on how to eliminate or contain him, which helped lead to 9/11.

John Kennedy

Good: Cut marginal tax rates by 30%. Compromised on missiles in Turkey for missiles in Cuba to avoid war.

Bad: Seeded the Vietnam War. Backed a coup d'etat, which installed the Baath Party (Saddam Hussein’s party) into power in Iraq.

Dwight Eisenhower

Good: Created the interstate highway system. Ended the Korean war.

Bad: Backed a coup d'etat, installing the Shah of Iran. Expanded Social Security and other New Deal programs.

The Irrelevant Presidents

Gerald Ford

Good: Vetoed more bills than most of his predecessors and successors.

Bad: The lame WIN (whip inflation now) campaign.

George Herbert Walker Bush

Bad: First Iraq war (but got out quickly). Generally clueless about the economy.

Good: Only served one term!

The Dreadful Presidents

Lyndon Johnson

Bad: Started the Vietnam War and created the Great Society entitlement programs which set the stage for the inflation of the 1970s and the entitlement mentality and deficits we are living with today.

Good: The Voting Rights Act.

Jimmy Carter

Bad: Couldn’t make a decision in a crisis (according to his own National Security Advisor) leading to American hostages in Iran and a generally failed stint as leader of the free world. Nearly destroyed the military through neglect.

Good: “Deregulated” the airlines and trucking. Appointed Paul Volcker to the Federal Reserve, who helped break the inflationary spiral of the 1970s.

Richard Nixon

Bad: Expanded Johnson’s Vietnam War and Great Society programs. Took the U.S. off of the gold standard. Imposed wage and price controls, creating shortages of everything from gasoline to toilet paper. Few remember this, but people were eating horse meat under Nixon because his price controls caused a beef shortage.

Good: Helped China enter the world community.

George Herbert Hoover Bush

Bad: Lied about Iraq’s involvement with 9/11. Iraq war. Corrupted the Constitution to spy on Americans with the Patriot Act and other legislation. Created the first new entitlement program since the Great Society. Created massive deficits and more than doubled the national debt on his watch. Quasi-nationalization of the financial sector. Largest federal intrusion into the classroom in history. Torture in Guantanamo.

Good: Letterman's Great Moments In Presidential Speeches...