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Fast Off the Mark in China

In the US we have countdown timers on green lights to tell us how long we have left to get across the street. In China the red lights count down so you can be fast off the mark when the light turns. This particular speed up technique isn't very effective because you can't count on the cross traffic stopping when their light turns red; busses and cars anywhere near the intersection just lean on their horns and keep going.

Much more frightening from a competitive PoV is the school day. From elementary school on, kids start at 7:30 AM; there's a break from 12:30 PM to 2:00; then classes continue until 5:30. Wow!

On the lunch break kids can go home if there is someone there to feed them. If both parents work, the children can either eat in school (where they don't like the food) and be supervised by teachers for a siesta or go to nearby private mini-daycare apartments. If hard working parents aren't going to be home at 5:30, the kids go to private places where they get homework help.

Class size averages around 70. Chinese parents would like it to be smaller but it is what it is. Apparently discipline is not a problem in these large classes. Teachers have and use authority.

Education is free through middle school although our sources on a recent trip to China told us that "contributions" are required to get into the best public schools; there are also private schools. Parents are expected to pay for high school and college. However, only those who have done well through middle school stay on an academic track; the others usually go to a trade school after middle school. About 50% of high school graduates go on to college, up from 5% a generation ago. College campuses, obviously, are growing enormously and moving to the suburbs to find expansion room.

The very limited number of Chinese we talked to still consider American universities to be the best in the world and want their children to have the option of coming here. I hope they still feel that way a generation from now. They're not going to wait for us at the traffic light or anywhere else.


If You Can Get Level Funded, Take It

In the bad old days of inflation, level funding a government program was a way of reducing the real dollars it had to spend without "cutting" – something politicians don't like to do. In deflationary times, level funding is actually an increase in spending power. However, the various constituencies which live and die by government funding haven't completely come around to that point of view.

Yesterday in his reinaugural speech, Vermont Governor Jim Douglas proposed level per-pupil funding for all school districts for the upcoming fiscal year. The outraged howls of protest can reputedly be heard as far away as Montreal and Boston.

Vermont and Douglas don't have much money to work with. Each successive revenue forecast is lower than the one before it. Unemployment is rising here as it is everywhere else. Medicaid and general education account for 63 cents out of every state tax dollar, according to Douglas. If education spending is allowed to increase on its usual trajectory, then the cuts in Medicaid and the remaining state service will be incredibly draconian. Even with the growth in educational funding paused, the remaining services will mostly do much worse than level funding. The state, unlike the feds, can't just print money and it's required to have a balanced budget.

Vermont has not been shabby in its educational funding. Our per pupil spending is the fourth highest in the nation according to The Ethan Allan Institute and we do get comparatively good results in nationwide tests. However, if educational spending were to hit the level projected for fiscal 2010, it will have increased 23% from fiscal 2006 while the student population has DECREASED 4.4%. That's simply not sustainable even in good times; it's impossible when state revenues and the revenues of the state's taxpayers are both on their way down and while the recession drives up the number of claimants on welfare services.

Local Vermont school boards are largely volunteer and they deserve great credit for the time they put in. Most have already planned their budget with some increase so mandated state level funding will force them back to the drawing boards. These are, unfortunately, the kind of times when everybody has to go back to the drawing board. BTW, under Douglas' proposals, towns can actually increase their school budgets as long as the voters of that town are willing to raise their property taxes enough to pay for the increase; but that's not likely to happen. Back in the ancient past, Vermont towns taxed themselves to pay for education so there was no reason for the State to tell them what to spend; now much of the funding for local education comes from the state - a lot of it through an incredibly complex formula under which property-rich towns subsidize property-poor towns through what is essentially a surcharge on the education portion of their property taxes.

The school boards won't have an easy time bringing their budgets under control. Obviously they'll get some relief from the fact that both heating and school bus fuel may cost less next year than they did last; there should even be money left over in the fuel accounts from this fiscal year. Contracts which have already been negotiated often have automatic pay escalators in them even if there is no underlying inflation. The school boards and the teacher's union will have to discuss whether layoffs or givebacks are the better solution to avoid raising the overall budget. Our staff costs are very high because we have a proliferation of local school districts. No one can consolidate in time to save money in next year's budget; but, if it's clear that the automatic increases in state funding have stopped, consolidation may get a better look in the future.

Even given the grim revenue projections, some legislators are holding out hope that there'll be a federal bailout which'll relieve the pressure to level fund education. Granted that schools may be more worth bailing out than banks and car makers, this isn't how federal money should be used and the flow would be impossible to stop once it got going. Fine for the Fed to help with capital budget items which can legitimately be considered investment and can be done at low cost in a recession.

Under cover of inflation the real cost of many government services went up disproportionately to the number of people served or the amount of service provided. Deflation, as painful as it is, gives us an opportunity to get real costs under control. Many of us wish we could be guaranteed that we'll be "level funded" in the year to come. This year level funding is a good deal.

Being Globalization Ready

The generation of kids who are now in high school could be hurt by globalization.  Craig DeLuca founded The Global Challenge to give these kids a better opportunity to be beneficiaries rather than victims of a closely-interconnected global economy.  Students enrolled in The Global Challenge use Skype, IM, and email to work as part of international teams entered in a worldwide competition.

2600 students from around the world competed in the 2006-2007 challenge.  Winners will be honored a barbeque here in Stowe (I’m looking forward to meeting them) and get to spend a week at Governor’s Institute on Engineering at the College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences, University of Vermont.  They get cash awards for scholarships as well as travel expenses paid.

From The Global Challenge website: “Many in the US consider globalization and foreign competition to be a threat, …Adjusting to this new dynamic is challenging for the citizens and workers of developing countries as well as developed countries.

“But we believe that the changing global landscape creates an opportunity for all nations to strengthen and expand global understanding and cooperation and to solve the world’s most intractable problems, including global climate change, poverty, and disease. Through The Global Challenge, students begin to think more about these problems with applied math and science skills before they graduate from high school.”

Craig, who like me is semi-retired in Vermont after selling a couple of businesses and is a non-golfer, told me what made him found The Global Challenge.  He was on the board of a high tech company.  He wasn’t surprised to find that the company was outsourcing its manufacturing to China; he was surprised and appalled to find out that it was also planning to outsource engineering – not based on cost so much as a lack of qualified engineers here in the States.  At the same time, he knew that the local school was preparing to save money by cutting the budget for science books.  And he’d just read Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat. “This is an educational problem,” Craig concluded.  Craig’s an engineer.  To engineers problems, once identified, need to get solved.

The pilot project linked kids in Stowe and next door Morrisville to students in several other countries.  It succeeded well enough to attract an $891,000 grant from the National Science Foundation and some other funding and grew to this year’s much bigger program.  Always the entrepreneur, Craig is talking about how to expand to 26,000 and then 260,000 students while drastically lowering the cost per participant.

This year’s challenge required students to work on the design and business plan for products to combat global warming with an accent on practical invention.  Since the teams are global, using communication tools as well as the Internet as an accessible resource is a huge part of the lesson.  The program is limited by necessity to those with a broadband connection – at least at school - and those who speak English.  Neither restriction has prevented many kids from India, China, Korea, Mexico and other countries from participating.

If there’s anything to quarrel with, it’s starting with an assumption that global warming is anthropogenic and can be reversed by decreasing the use of fossil fuels without identifying this as a working assumption rather than a fact.  Kids already have a problem with science education, as Craig has correctly diagnosed; part of their expanded education should be to remember to question almost everything.  This is a quibble, though; most of their projects were as useful for reducing dependence on oil – good idea for a whole host of reasons – as reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

Should you be so inclined, you can help The Global Challenge with a donation or you can encourage someone to enroll in next year’s program.

Paper Is Too Flat

Galeal riffs in NextBlitz on what schools might look like if classwork and homework were on online.  He’s appalled by the mountain of paper his first grader brings home to be thrown away.  It’s not the waste of paper that set Galeal off; it’s the waste of information that the use of paper implies: “tons of unorganized data - very little information, context, or correlation.”

If school work were “done electronically, stored, and indexed” then parents, students and teachers could look through it for patterns.  What kind of trig problem is the student consistently having trouble with?  What are his or her weaknesses and strengths?  My thought: what weaknesses and/or strengths do all the students of a particular teacher or users of a particular text have?

Galeal thinks teachers will be able to manage their work load better if homework comes in via RSS rather than all getting dumped on teacher’s desk on due day.  That’s probably a little optimistic: he (Galeal) may have submitted his homework before the deadline but not sure any of the rest of did or would.  Nevertheless, a paper workflow IS a nightmare.

The post suggests class wikis, photoblogs, collaborative book reports and all the communication that modern technology should be putting at the finger tips of students. Is this happening in your kids’ school?

Most important is that students aren’t being taught to use the tools they’ll need to succeed in the next part (or even concurrent parts of their lives). Should everything they learn about the online collaborative world they live in come from MySpace?  How can an offline school limiting itself to paper-based communication prepare students for an online world?

The truth is that paper lacks context unless you count footnotes – which you should but they’re so dead.  Some posts from Fractals of Change appear offline in Vermont weeklies.  I have to pick these posts carefully and edit them for paper.  How many URLs can you put in print?  How do you imbed a video or a picture that you don’t have the right to reproduce?  Linking is a crucial part of the way we communicate now.  Using live links is a key part of what students MUST learn now.  They don’t learn it if they do their work on paper.

Same thing with collaboration.  Now that Galeal points it out, of course every classroom needs a wiki – not for pedagogical efficiency but because students MUST be conversant with this type of collaboration.

I’m on a plane on my way to the Freedom to Communicate (F2C) Conference.  Now realize that part of that freedom – a key part – is teaching kids to use it.

What’s an E-state?

As regular readers of Fractals of Change and Vermonters already know, Governor Jim Douglas proposed that Vermont become the first e-state. But what’s an e-state?  I don’t speak for the Governor in any way but I do think I know what he’s talking about and what the word has come to mean in subsequent discussion so I posted an article in wikipedia which currently reads:

E-state is used to refer both to a state with universal availability of fixed and roaming broadband Internet access within its borders and a state which primarily delivers its services and conducts its business online. "State" in this context can mean a state as political subdivision of a nation or a state which is a nation.

“The two meanings of the word go together since a state must have confidence that there is universal broadband access before it can make online delivery of services primary. If any significant minority of the state’s citizens don’t have broadband access or if broadband access is only available from fixed locations, then services still must be designed for offline delivery even if online delivery is also an option.

“There are currently no e-states in either sense of the word.

“The first know use of the term e-state was in January of 2007 by Vermont Governor Jim Douglas in a speech proposing that the legislature approve bonding authority to enable Vermont to become the first e-state in the United States. The term in now uniformly used in discussion of this plan and its intended consequence.”

One of the great virtues of wikipedia is that it becomes a forum for the discussion of terms when the terms are still fresh. Some people are sure to improve my article; some may even object to it being there since there is, as of yet, no e-state.  The concept of e-state is bound to evolve and, as it does, the article in wikipedia’ll remain fresh because of the energy its users put into editing.

Back of the subject of e-states:  the key assumption is that there is a huge advantage to everyone in having universal broadband access, not just to the last few people to join the online community.  I don’t know of any name for the law that says a network which reaches everyone is an order of magnitude more valuable than a network which reaches most people but, nevertheless, believe the law is true. Intuitive understanding of this law led to Benjamin Franklin’s invention of the US Postal System (before there was a US) rural electrification, the farm-to-market and the Interstate highway systems, and even the Universal Service Fund (as badly run as it certainly is) for telephone access.

Once you know that everyone is on-net, it becomes possible to design services exclusively for delivery via the new network. The result is usually vastly improved service – no matter what the service is – at a lower price. On the other hand, when a significant minority is off-net, you’re stuck with the cost of off-net delivery so a radically new version of whatever the service is usually too costly and NOT developed.

For example schools can’t give Internet-dependent homework unless all students are known to have usable Internet access. If schools DON’T give homework which depends on using search engines, wikipedia, and other online sources, they’re unable to do the their job of preparing students to live in the world.

An e-state is a state in which everyone is online wherever he or she happens to be.  The important word is “everyone”.

Related posts:

Vermont, The First E-State

More on Vermont, The First E-State

Vermont, The First E-State – First Reactions

Vermont, The First E-State

Vermont Governor Jim Douglas in his inaugural address today in Montpelier: “I propose that by 2010, Vermont be the nation’s first true ‘e-state’ – the first state to provide universal cellular and broadband coverage everywhere and anywhere within its borders.  When you turn on your laptop, you’re connected.  When you hit the send button on your cell phone, the call goes through.   There would be no more endless downloads, no more hopeless hellos, and no more ‘can you hear me now.’”

If your business or business idea involves serving a fully online population, you should consider field trials here in Vermont; we’re going to be the first “e-state” but the others are sure to follow  You might even want to consider locating here.  This is already a great place to live; now it’ll have great connectivity as well.  You can easily get out of sight of civilization in Vermont; whether you’re also out of touch is your choice.

This is the vision Governor Douglas presented to the legislature. The proposed mechanism for assuring that this tough goal is achieved is a State Rural Telecommunications Authority which will issue up to $40 million of State-backed bonding which the Governor expects will be the seed for more than an additional $200 million in private investment – all aimed at building communication infrastructure.  Much of the State money will go to build towers to assure universal coverage; rentals from the towers and other facilities built will fund the indebtedness.  Use of State land and right of way will speed the process.

Jim Douglas gets it:  “Wireless communications and broadband internet access are near the point of convergence – meaning the technologies that support each will be the same.  More specifically, modern telecommunications will be based on Internet Protocol, or IP, a digital language that can support voice calls – like cell phones and standard telephones – as well as internet communications – such as email and web pages.”

It doesn’t stop there.  Knowing that broadband is universally available gives Vermont the freedom to build the next generation of state services to take advantage of this connectivity. 

Teachers can give Internet-dependant homework.  Can’t do that today when too many members of the class may not have decent Internet access.    University of Vermont and the State Colleges which are already pioneers in distance learning can reach ALL of the population.

Home health care can be radically improved.  Vermonters can be monitored at home; doctors don’t have to be in the hospital or their offices to see results. 

The new communication systems for emergency services will be built over a wireless IP infrastructure.  Imagine what this means for a next generation of E-911.  It also means the end of the ridiculous situation where different first responder units can’t communicate with each other because their radios support different frequencies.

Instate business will obviously benefit from better communication capability and lower communication costs.  It will be easier for Vermonters to buy instate (if that’s what they want) or sell out of state.

Without the density to support much mass transit, Vermont’s economy is hurt when the price of imported energy goes up.  But the ability to substitute communication for transportation helps the environment, the economy, and the pocketbooks of individual Vermonters.

This is a bold vision.  Three years is not a long time.  But Vermont is determined to be an Internet leader in Internet time.

Full disclosure: I’ve worked with the Governor’s Telecom Advisory Council which provided significant input to this plan and have been giving both solicited and unsolicited advice as the plan developed.  I’m an admirer of and rabid partisan of this bold stroke so it’s possible that my coverage will be slanted by my enthusiasm and/or participation.

However, except where otherwise stated, all opinions in this post are mine and not necessarily  the opinions of any other person or body.

Internal Protectionism

If you’re a fan of free trade and globalization as I am, then you should have liked the President’s renunciation of isolationism and protectionism in the State of the Union Address.  In an open world, America must be competitive if we are going to maintain our standard of living; we never had to compete with the WHOLE world before.  It won’t be easy.

But some industries are protected from DIRECT international competition.  Health care, education, transit, utilities, domestic communication, and government at all levels are among the industries which do not face foreign competition.  But those American workers who are competing directly with the rest of the world cannot afford to pay inflated prices or receive substandard service from the “protected” industries.

Price and not quality is the problem with our health care system.  People from everywhere who can afford to come to the US for treatment.  But some people in the US cannot afford basic health care.  As I blogged here, a big part of the solution to the cost problem for the employed is to eliminate employers as middlemen AND separate routine bill-paying from insurance to deal with emergencies.  Expanded Health Savings Accounts ARE a step in the right direction.  Right now competitors like China just don’t provide the level of health care we do.  We don’t want to degrade quality; their workers will eventually demand it as well; but we must do better on price.

The indigent require direct aid for medical expenses and an inducement to practice preventive care; but that problem should be kept separate from the problem of affordability for everyone else. 

Quality more than price is the problem with our public education system.  It’s not that we pay teachers too much; it’s that we pay too much to the wrong teachers.  We are critically dependent on the quality of our educational system to be competitive in an open world.  Shielding teachers from competition doesn’t get us there.  We need merit pay for teachers.  We need well-paid teachers who are comfortable with being competitive.  They need to teach our children both the skill and the will necessary to compete.

Transit workers can strike confident that their jobs won’t be out-sourced. Railway workers can be protected by antique work rules which – along with other factors – doom Amtrak to perpetual failure.  But the riders are going to jobs where wages are capped by foreign competition.  The alternative to transit is gas-guzzling cars.  Quality more than price is the problem with our public transit but, unless the rules are changed, quality including – all important – frequency of service can’t be delivered at a reasonable price.

As wages rise in the developing world – and they will as it continues to develop, we will have a chance at reasserting ourselves in manufacturing IF we have an educated (see above) workforce AND if our utilities can supply energy at least as cheaply as it’s available in the countries we compete with.  For economic, political, and environmental reasons, we do have to wean ourselves from fossil fuels.  That means both that we resume building nuclear plants and that we continue with the more politically popular wind and solar energy projects.  Note that in order to make any progress with wind or nuclear energy, we need to change our permitting process so potential neighbors of a project can’t kill it with excessive cost and delay. A recent post on nuclear power is here.

We have already become pitifully uncompetitive in domestic communication.  The broadband service available to American small businesses and residences is pitiful in price, bandwidth, and availability compared to the rest of the developed world.  Our telco-cableco duopoly would never be able to compete in most other developed countries with the miserable over-priced product they make available here.  Trouble is, since we are stuck with this product, our ability to compete internationally is degraded.  It’s essential that we break the power of this protected domestic duopoly. (Most recent rant here).

American government at all three, sometimes four levels, is actually pretty good compared to the rest of the world both in price and quality.  But it’s not good enough.  The influence of lobbyists is a growing problem.  Corruption can never be ignored.  It’s often hard to tell the difference between a campaign contribution and a bribe.  In some place like New Jersey and Louisiana local corruption is assumed.  The incompetence of FEMA and the recent apparent fumble of the new Medicare program are cause for alarm.

Bottom line (at least of this post) – there can’t be any “protected” industries domestically if we’re going to be competitive internationally.   

Evolution’s Not Religion and Vice Versa

You can’t disprove Intelligent Design.  Don’t feel bad about that; no one else can either.  That’s why the “Theory of Intelligent Design” is not science.  Doesn’t mean it’s not “true”, just means it isn’t science.  You also can’t prove that the whole universe wasn’t created the minute you started to read this sentence completely populated with your memories and evidence of a much longer history.

Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, on the other hand, can be disproved.  That’s because it IS a scientific theory.  All we need is evidence of a complex species arising spontaneously or even from significantly different antecedents and our current version of the theory is history.  Such evidence hasn’t shown up so the theory, in broad terms, still stands.  Doesn’t mean it’s true, just means it is a scientific theory and that it has yet to be disproved.

The problem with the current debate is that Intelligent Design advocates claim that Intelligent Design is science AND that scientists and others are acting as if Darwin’s Theory of Evolution is a religion. The latter is as much a mistake and as much a hindrance to good education as the former.

Science teaching in most American primary and secondary schools is already pretty terrible. To generalize grossly, most high schools science consists of a few facts, some half-baked environmental theories, and as little math and logic as possible.  The consequence are possibly tragic since the young citizens who aren’t being educated in the scientific method or logical thinking are going to be required to make democratic decisions on things like nuclear power, cloning, and genetic engineering.

Larding the science curriculum with non-scientific explanations won’t help.  On the other hand, teaching young people that any theory is beyond questioning is at least as harmful. It’s the way of most theories to eventually be replaced by something more comprehensive.  Good quote from wikipedia:

Thus, Aristotelian mechanics explained observations of objects in everyday situations, but was falsified by Galileo’s experiments, and was itself replaced by Newtonian mechanics which accounted for the phenomena noted by Galileo (and others). Newtonian mechanics' reach included the observed motion of the planets and the mechanics of gases. Or at least most of them; the size of the precession of the orbit of Mercury wasn't predicted by Newtonian mechanics, but was by Einstein's general relativity.”

The Theory of Evolution has itself evolved since Darwin’s original great insights.  He thought that species evolved at a constant rate.  The relative absence of transitional species in the fossil record and other observations make Stephen Jay Gould’s theory of punctuated equilibrium seem a better explanation. We now theorize that mitochondria and other organelles evolved separately from the cells which host them.  We know what Darwin didn’t: mitochondria are inherited only from our mothers.

Progress towards better understanding of evolution is inhibited it if we attack everyone who questions the current version of the theory or pretend that a theory is a fact.  Children don’t learn to think better by being exposed to ad hominem attacks on those who question the current orthodoxy.

It IS legitimate to question the probability of life arising spontaneously; the math’s not intuitive as Chris Anderson mentions in a post on hard-to-swallow numbers here.  It IS legitimate to question anything presented in science; that’s an important lesson.  And it’s legitimate to object to adding unfalsifiable  beliefs – including the versions of Intelligent Design I’ve seen – to a science curriculum.  It’s not legitimate and it’s not helpful to claim that a theory is a fact in order to protect it from politically incorrect attacks.

The great lesson of science is that ideas have to stand and fall on their own – theories evolve as surely as species do.

The Search Bee

It  is obviously crucial that education adapt to change.  The search bee should replace the spelling bee.  Spelling used to be a crucial skill for success; it isn’t anymore because of spell checkers.  But now the ability to use a search engine is essential.  I don’t think I’ve written a single post on this blog without Googling somebody or something.

Yesterday I blogged that the information space is now flat.  It is no longer accessed through hierarchies but through links, tags, and search engines.  People who can use these tools well have an advantage over those who can’t.

I imagine a search bee as students being given specific facts to find and winning by being the first to find an answer.  Obviously each competing student has to be at an online computer.  Through a series of elimination rounds, the school or school district, or state school system gets to quarter final, semifinal, and final rounds which would be public events like spelling bees were.  There would be live attendance, web cast, and traditional broadcast of these.  If school systems can work through their anti-commercial bias, search engine companies would make great sponsors for the search bees.

For lower grades, the questions would be very precise:  “What is the first train after 10:00 AM on March 1, 2005 from Oslo to Stockholm?”, “Who first said ‘millions for defense but not a penny for tribute’ and on what occasion?”.  For higher grades, the questions should be more complex although that complexity makes judging the answers more difficult.

Before blogging this, I Googled “Search Engine Contest School” to see if I could find some good examples of these contests.   Everything I got back was about how to get your web pages a higher ranking in a search engine, a valuable but more narrow skill. So I Advance Googled eliminating items with the word “ranking”.  I got one dead link that looked relevant but no real hits.

From this quick search, I don’t think that schools in any number are holding search bees.  But my suspicion is that somewhere this is being done.  It’s too obvious not to have been thought of before.  My interest is more than academic: Mary and I would like to help our local schools teach the critical skill of searching and it would help to have some examples.

So another way to ask a question is to toss it into the blogosphere.  If you know of search bees being held or particularly good examples of teaching search skills, please post them as comments or trackbacks to this post.

Of course, there are many other skills that need to be taught if we are going to stop whining about outsourcing and continue our leadership in technology and standard of living.  Boolean logic is actually a predicate to excellence in search engine use.  Classic writing skills are perhaps now more valuable since they are an entrée to the blogosphere and since we communicate so much by email.  Today’s writing, though, has to concentrate on the use of hyperlinks rather than the formal citations I learned in school and needs to include the use of tags.

Information distribution hierarchies used to play a role in qualifying the information we receive.  This role often resulted in filtering out good ideas or mangling the information so it’s good that information distribution has flattened (more about that in a future blog). But now we have to know how to filter our own information.  Students who haven’t been taught real science can’t filter junk science.  Students who don’t know what a false syllogism is can’t spot one when it comes flying out of cyberspace.  Ditto an oxymoron.

Our schools need to adapt massively to a changing world.  Search bees are one good place to start.

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