School life in Korea

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I’ve started reading The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way and the author follows a Midwestern exchange student to high school in Korea. Here’s what it is like…

A few minutes later, he glanced backwards at the rows of students behind him. Then he looked again, eyes wide. A third of the class was asleep. Not nodding off, but flat-out, no-apology sleeping, with their heads down on the desks. One girl actually had her head on a special pillow that slipped over her forearm. This was pre-meditated napping. How could this be? Eric had read all about the hard-working Koreans who trounced the Americans in math, reading, and science. He hadn’t read anything about shamelessly sleeping through class.

Next was science class. Once again, at least a third of the class went to sleep. It was almost farcical. How did Korean kids get those record-setting test scores if they spent so much of their time asleep in class?

Soon he discovered the purpose of the teacher’s backscratcher. It was the Korean version of wake-up call. Certain teachers would lightly tap kids on the head when they fell asleep or talked in class. The kids called it a “love stick.”

At ten past two, Eric left school early. Since he was an exchange student, he was exempt from having to experience the full force of the Korean school day. He asked one of his classmates what would happen after he left. “We keep going to school.” Eric looked at him blankly. “Until when?” “Classes end at ten after four,” he said.

Then he went on: After classes, the kids cleaned the school, mopping the floors, wiping the chalkboards, and emptying the garbage. The kids who had received demerits—for misbehaving or letting their hair grow too long—had to wear red pinnies and clean the bathrooms. Work, including the unpleasant kind, was at the center of Korean school culture, and no one was exempt. At four thirty, everyone settled back in their seats for test-prep classes, in anticipation of the college entrance exam. Then they ate dinner in the school cafeteria. After dinner came yaja, a two hour period of study loosely supervised by teachers. Most kids reviewed their notes from the day or watched online test-prep lectures, as the teachers roamed the hallways and confiscated the occasional illicit iPod. Around nine in the evening, Eric’s classmates finally left Namsan. But the school day still wasn’t over. At that point, most kids went to private tutoring academies known as hagwons. That’s where they did most of their real learning, the boy said. They took more classes there until eleven, the city’s hagwon curfew. Then—finally—they went home to sleep for a few hours before reporting back to school at eight the next morning.

Even over summer break, libraries got so crowded that kids had to get tickets to get a space. Many paid $4 to rent a small air-conditioned carrel in the city’s plentiful supply of for-profit self-study libraries. Korea’s sky-high PISA scores were mostly a function of students’ tireless efforts, Lee [an education minister] believed, not the country’s schools.

How far have they come?

the country had no history of excelling in math. In fact, the vast majority of its citizens were illiterate as recently as the 1950s. When the country began rebuilding its schools after the Korean War, the Korean language did not even have words for modern concepts in math and science. New words had to be coined before textbooks could be published. In 1960, Korea had a student-teacher ratio of fifty-nine to one. Only a third of Korean kids even went to middle school. Poverty predicted academic failure. If PISA had existed back then, the United States would have trounced Korea in every subject.

Listening to Lee, I realized that the rest of the world could learn as much from what worked in Korea as from what didn’t work. First, countries could change. That was hopeful. Korea had raised its expectations for what kids could do despite epidemic poverty and illiteracy. Korea did not wait to fix poverty before radically improving its education system, including its teacher colleges. This faith in education and people had catapulted Korea into the developed world.

What happens when it is time for college?

University admissions were based on students’ skills as measured by the test. Full stop. Nobody got accepted because he was good at sports or because his parents had gone there. It was, in a way, more meritocratic than many U.S. colleges had ever been.

It was an extreme meritocracy for children that hardened into a caste system for adults. Even when more universities opened, the public continued to fixate on the top three.

How much does it cost?

Per student, Korean taxpayers spent half as much money as American taxpayers on schools, but Korean families made up much of the difference out of their own pockets.

Are the students happy?

One Sunday morning during that school year, a teenager named Ji stabbed his mother in the neck in their home in Seoul. He did it to stop her from going to a parent-teacher conference. He was terrified that she’d find out that he’d lied about his latest test scores.

According to his test scores, Ji ranked in the top 1 percent of all high school students in the country, but, in absolute terms, he still placed four thousandth nationwide. His mother had insisted he must be number one at all costs, Ji said. When his scores had disappointed her in the past, he said, she’d beaten him and withheld food. In response to the story, many Koreans sympathized more with the living son than the dead mother. Commentators projected their own sour memories of high school onto Ji’s crime. Some went so far as to accuse the mother of inviting her own murder. A Korea Times editorial described the victim as “one of the pushy ‘tiger’ mothers who are never satisfied with their children’s school records no matter how high their scores.” As for Ji, he confessed to police immediately, weeping as he described how his mother had haunted his dreams after he’d killed her. At the trial, the prosecutor asked for a fifteen-year prison sentence. The judge, citing mitigating circumstances, sentenced the boy to three and a half years.

Is a country where every bureaucrat is good at math able to sort out bad teachers from the good ones?

To elevate the profession, Lee rolled out a new teacher evaluation scheme to give teachers useful feedback and hold them accountable for results.

Korea’s teacher evaluation scheme did not include student test-score growth; officials I talked to seemed to want to use this data, but they didn’t know how to assign accountability, since so many students had multiple teachers, including outside tutors, instructing them in the same subjects.) Under Korea’s new rules, low-scoring teachers were supposed to be retrained. But, as in U.S. districts where reformers have tried imposing similar strategies, teachers and their unions fought back, calling the evaluations degrading and unfair. Pretty policies on paper turned toxic in practice. As a form of protest, some Korean teachers gave all their peers the highest possible reviews. In 2011, less than 1 percent of Korea’s teachers were actually sent for retraining, and some simply refused to go.

What does the author think that we can learn from this system?

As Eric [the exchange student from Minnesota] had noticed on his first day, Korean schools existed for one and only one purpose: so that children could master complex academic material. It was an obvious difference. U.S. schools, by contrast, were about many things, only one of which was learning. This lack of focus made it easy to lose sight of what mattered most.

it was clear that the real innovation in Korea was not happening in the government or the public schools. It was happening in Korea’s shadow education system—the multimillion-dollar afterschool tutoring complex that Lee was trying to undermine.

More: read the book.

Smart People at Huntington Theater

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Four thumbs down from our group this evening at Smart People, a play put on by the Huntington Theater. The play has two black characters, an Asian-American woman who is a Harvard professor, and a white guy. Our little group included an Asian-American woman who is a Harvard professor and yet the situations did not seem credible or interesting. Some of the dialog was good and the actors did complete justice to the script, but the idea that putting white, black, and Asian people together in the same country immediately leads to compelling tensions is questionable.

Much of the play concerns Barack Obama’s 2008 election. Yet it is unclear that Barack Obama’s racial background plays a part in what he is doing day to day any more than King Bush II’s racial background did.  The name “Obama” appears four times on the New York Times front page right now. Once is an article about “the Obama administration” denying a request for military assistance from the Iraqi Prime Minister. Was it denied because of Obama’s race? The article does not say that it was. Occurrence #2 is in an article about a woman whom the Times identifies as “African-American” and works as a Broadway usher who went to her workplace to see Obama attend a play despite the fact that she was not scheduled to work that day.  She was fired. It was the Times reporter who chose to assign a racial identity to the usher, however. It wasn’t part of the event per se. The third mention is a 2:46 video about “Obama’s Cold War”. The reporter says that “Obama fits the mold of Republican Cold War Presidents” and doesn’t mention the race of any of these people or explain how race might have been a factor. The last mention on the front page concerns Obama trying to get money from 50 rich people in Weston, Massachusetts. There is no mention in the article of anyone’s race. Would Obama have done something different with these 50 rich people if his racial background had been different?

If nothing else, Smart People proves that talking about race does not make the conversation profound or even worth having.

[Separately, we enjoyed our dinner at Stephi's on Tremont beforehand.]

Honda Odyssey 2014: a tribute to manufacturing engineers

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Last week Isaac Jordan of Boch Honda delivered a 2014 Odyssey to my front door in Cambridge. Given the number of systems in the vehicle it impresses me that everything seems to work perfectly (i.e., as designed), including the software.

It was going to cost about $2000 extra to have a GPS, so I figured out that a RAM mount placed on the shelf underneath the factory nav screen (you get the expensive screen even if you don’t pay $2000 for the $15 GPS chip and database) works well.

The one thing that doesn’t work is integrating a Samsung Note 3 mobile phone with the car, but I don’t think Honda could have anticipated that Google Contacts/Samsung Contacts would broadcast a “contact” that is just an email address (of a person to whose email I might have replied 6 years ago, for example). Consequently there are literally tens of thousands of “contacts” stored in the car now, most of which do not have any associated phone number. The voice recognition doesn’t work because the Honda engineers didn’t anticipate that a driver would be speaking one of potentially tens of thousands of contacts. It should work fine with an iPhone, though.

But mostly I am posting this to thank the manufacturing engineers who worked out how to deliver a perfect product. Why can’t we software engineers do as well?

[I do recommend Boch Honda and Isaac Jordan, by the way. The price was lower than at other dealers and it was a reasonably no-nonsense transaction.]

Related: my review of the 2011 Odyssey. (The things that were bad about the Odyssey in 2011 are mostly still bad. They did add an RFID key system. The car still isn’t smart enough to protect children left indoors on hot days. It is still noisier on the highway than a normal sedan. The crazy expensive entertainment system for the kids has about one quarter the resolution of the phone in your pocket (800×480!). Will it play Blu-Ray? No. The car desperately needs iPad/Android tablet docks.)

Why is California’s teacher tenure unconstitutional?

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A judge has ruled that Californa’s laws giving school teachers tenure after 18 months is unconstitutional (nytimes) on the grounds that it means some students will be taught by incompetents. But why does that follow? Californians love to pay 50-year-old retirees $100,000+/year for not working (see this article for some statistics; this article, on the other hand, indicates that it is tough for the newly retired to get more than $200,000 per year; this article has some data on what yet-to-retire workers earn). If a school administrator decided that a 24-year-old tenured teacher was incompetent, why would it be against state tradition to pay that person $50,000-100,000/year to stay home and play Xbox? It would cost taxpayers more, admittedly, to send tenured-but-ineffective teachers home and hire replacements, but that’s an accounting/efficiency problem, not a constitutional one. And California taxpayers have a demonstrated willingness to pay public employees without regard to their contributions/efforts.

So why can’t California school systems meet their commitments to teachers (pay without regard to performance) and also to students (teachers meeting a minimum standard in each classroom) simply by adding some more tax dollars?

A great way to grow the GDP (me on TV)

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It would be nice if modesty prevented me from linking to this WBZ TV interview regarding an unfortunate encounter between a Southwest 737 winglet and a JetBlue Airbus A320 horizontal stabilizer at Logan airport (CNN).

To prepare for the interview I tapped into my vast store of aviation knowledge and… Google. From a Boeing Web site I learned that a pair of winglets costs about $1 million. Presumably a replacement for this plastic-reinforced-by-carbon-fiber part is cheaper but it occurred to me that if this were to happen every day we could generate some beautiful GDP growth numbers.

Google Voice transcription of a pocket dial message

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Google Voice informed me of a message from my most important contact. Here’s the robot’s transcription of what she said “HI bye bye. Hey, bye bye bye, cos hello. Bye. Hello, Okay, bye bye. Hello, the bye bye bye. Hey, bye okay but delivery cos bye hey, shh are.”

[When I listened to the audio it was a classic pocket dial with no human voice sound at all.]

Keynes predicted everything except how greedy people are

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Here’s an interesting book review in New Yorker by Elizabeth Kolbert regarding Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time. It turned out that Keynes was remarkably prescient regarding the economic growth that would result from technological progress, but he predicted that people would work fewer hours per week, not grow in their greed for consumption to match economic growth.

I read this New Yorker piece during the same week that I saw Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” (my review) and Alexander Payne’s Nebraska. Both the 1610 play and the 2013 movie take the position that if you are rich you’ll become a fat target for thieves and grifters and that even blood relation/family feeling is not nearly as powerful as greed. If reasonably comfortable people are willing to cheat and even kill for greater wealth, why wouldn’t they be willing to work longer hours?

At the same time, it does seem odd that people work so hard. My parents were Harvard graduates and my father had a great job with the Federal Trade Commission. The five of us shared a 1500 square foot house in Bethesda, Maryland with a black and white TV. My dad rode the Metrobus to work. Mom drove a dark green 1970 Chevrolet station wagon with black vinyl seats and no air-conditioning that broke down on the New Jersey turnpike every few trips to see the cousins. Putting a kid wearing shorts into the car on an August afternoon was bona fide child abuse that could result in first degree leg burns. (Note to youngsters reading this blog: the car did not break down due to advanced age; even fairly new cars in the old days were not as reliable as a 12-year-old Honda Accord would be today.) We attended public school and read books from the library. Our cavities were filled by a dentist who didn’t use novacaine for pediatric patients because it was too expensive and time-consuming. Kids in our (prosperous) neighborhood generally took between 0 and 2 commercial airline flights through high school graduation. We all shared a rotary-dial telephone. I don’t remember any family discussions over why my Dad didn’t take a second job or my Mom a full-time job so that we could have fancier stuff, a bigger house, or elaborate vacations like the lobbyists took their families on (even then lobbying the government was a great way to make money for all concerned!).

The material lifestyle that we had back in the 1970s could be achieved today with either zero work (i.e., collecting welfare of one sort or another), by reasonably skilled individuals with the 15 hour/week schedule that Keynes envisioned as becoming typical, or with the profits from a one-night encounter that produced a child (top of the Massachusetts child support guidelines is over $40,000 per year for a single child, i.e., more than the median after-tax household income in the state). Yet how many content themselves with what today we would call “the simplest life” and that back in the 1970s we called “the good life”? Welfare recipients, perhaps responding to “the welfare cliff”, tend not to pursue jobs that would reduce their benefits, but they often work for cash. People who get high hourly wages 15 hours per week find it tempting to take on an additional project and work 25 or 40 hours per week. According to their attorneys, at least, people who have found it profitable to collect child support on one child oftentimes have second and third children with additional co-parents, thus increasing their income (in New York and Texas, for example, it is exactly twice as profitable to have three kids with three different co-parents than to have three kids with the same co-parent; in Massachusetts, three kids with the same $250,000/year co-parent would yield child support of $55,390, but three kids with three $250,000/year co-parents would yield a tax-free revenue stream of $120,413, i.e., more than twice as profitable).

I don’t think it is reasonable to blame technological progress for our lack of contentment, as Kolbert does to some extent. The computer applications that people love the most (Web, Facebook, Gmail, etc.) are free and run on ridiculously cheap hardware. A reasonably good smartphone voice+data connection can be obtained for about $40 per month. The stuff that seems to have Americans spinning on the rat wheel is non-technological, e.g., a McMansion and the energy to heat/cool it, a monster SUV or pickup truck for day-to-day transportation instead of a car, a cruise around the Caribbean, etc.

If I had to pick one factor I think it is population growth. This has been a boon to politicians anxious to collect as much tax revenue as possible, but a bane to the would-be-slacker citizen. In the 1970s the roads weren’t nearly as clogged so you didn’t spend so many extra hours in a car essentially parked in the middle of the road relying on the air-conditioning for a breeze and the audio system for entertainment. In the 1970s there were fewer people demanding theater tickets, rides at Disneyland, sporting event seats, etc. Therefore you didn’t need to work 60 hours per week to earn enough to seat a family of 5 at a professional baseball or football game (and parking was a lot cheaper because there were fewer cars competing for the same real estate).

But could it be that the answer is as simple as “Why didn’t Keynes remember his Shakespeare?”

More: Read the New Yorker.

What if the magicians in the Tempest could do magic? (ART production through June 15)

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If you’re in or around Boston, I recommend heading down to the American Repertory Theater before June 15 to see The Tempest. The characters to whom Shakespeare gave magical capabilities actually do seem to have those capabilities in this production (with some help from Teller, apparently). Four of us went on Wednesday night and we all voted thumbs up.

(After the show, you’ll want to see this video on how levitation works.)

Piketty’s simple plan: tax people who aren’t like Piketty

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Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century is mostly about wealth inequality within countries, but takes an international approach to taxation due to the fact that people are able to invest internationally. A small portion of the book, however, concerns inequality considered globally.

Consider citizens of France, fortunate to be born into a country with fertile soil and ample fresh water. Working a legal maximum of 35 hours a week, thanks to these abundant natural resources, the French are able to enjoy the world’s best fruit and other agricultural products. Could a program of global wealth redistribution start with a special (“exceptional”) tax on French people that would be paid to Earth residents living in arid countries and suffering from a diet of week-old produce that has been shipped in? Apparently not, according to Piketty.

Or how about just look at countries sorted by per-capita GDP and tax those in the richest 30 to support folks in the bottom 150+? That would mean a tax on Thomas Piketty and his friends due to the fact that France comes in at #22 (IMF list). Capital in the Twenty-First Century does not propose this as a good idea.

What would be a good idea, however, is a tax on people in oil-rich countries (i.e., not France):

When it comes to regulating global capitalism and the inequalities it generates, the geographic distribution of natural resources and especially of “petroleum rents” constitutes a special problem. International inequalities of wealth—and national destinies—are determined by the way borders were drawn, in many cases quite arbitrarily. If the world were a single global democratic community, an ideal capital tax would redistribute petroleum rents in an equitable manner.

It is not up to me to calculate the optimal schedule for the tax on petroleum capital that would ideally exist in a global political community based on social justice and utility, or even in a Middle Eastern political community. I observe simply that the unequal distribution of wealth in this region has attained unprecedented levels of injustice, which would surely have ceased to exist long ago were it not for foreign military protection. In 2012, the total budget of the Egyptian ministry of education for all primary, middle, and secondary schools and universities in a country of 85 million was less than $5 billion.45 A few hundred kilometers to the east, Saudi Arabia and its 20 million citizens enjoyed oil revenues of $300 billion, while Qatar and its 300,000 Qataris take in more than $100 billion annually.

Piketty does not explain why when the Qataris were poor nobody felt an urgent need to help them out, but now that the Qataris are rich they should be taxed to help those who previously ignored them.

Thomas Piketty shows the conflict between economics and morals?

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A continuous background theme in Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century is that citizens in democracies are stupid and/or ill-informed, which is why they don’t vote to use the government’s power to take away more income and wealth from rich people. In Piketty’s view, the Honda drivers out there need to read his book to see that others are driving BMWs and Mercedes SUVs to shopping sprees at designer boutiques then returning home to their massive McMansions/estates. If they had access to his data they would see that what is rightfully theirs has been unfairly collected by a rich person and they would try to get it back.

I’m wondering, though, if Piketty isn’t seeing a difference in data availability and IQ, but rather a difference in morals. A PhD economist generally takes an amoral view of the world. More money is good. Less money is bad. But the average citizen does not have a PhD in economics or the corresponding amoral outlook. Thus Milton Friedman and more than 500 less famous economists signed a letter back in 2005 calling for legalization of marijuana, an idea that most voters did not support at the time. To an economist, the drug war is an obvious pure waste from a dollars and cents point of view. But apparently drug prohibition has some value to voters, as evidenced by the electoral success of politicians who take a “tough on drugs” stance. I personally don’t want to pay for the imprisonment of stoners. However, if my neighbor does want to pay for that (through his or her tax dollars) and votes accordingly, I don’t think it follows that my neighbor is therefore stupid or misinformed as to the cost of imprisoning stoners.

Could it be that Piketty’s “tax the rich” plan reveals the same conflict? An ancient human idea is that it is immoral to take things away from other people and that it is immoral to covet things that rich people own. Exodus 20:1-17 and Deuteronomy 5:4-21 instruct Jews and Christians as follows:  “Thou shalt not covet the neighbor’s McMansion”; “Thou shalt not covet the neighbor’s 4K Samsung”; “Thou shalt not steal”. The Buddha said “Steal not, neither do ye rob; but help everybody to be master of the fruits of his labor”. A Buddhism expert lists “Avoid stealing — taking what is not yours to take” as the #2 moral precept (reference).

In our pilot community we recently came up against this. A man earning $75,000 per year was splitting up from his wife of 10 years, one of the superstar executives whose compensation Piketty decries (and I as a shareholder also don’t like the practice!). The divorce mediator and judge advised him that he could tap this woman for years of alimony payments that far exceeded his income, but he replied “I don’t want it. She worked for it. She works all of the time. She earned it. I didn’t. I am comfortable on what I earn. I don’t need to take something that belongs to someone else.” He was reminded that under Massachusetts law he was absolutely entitled to take a few million dollars out of this woman, but he continued to turn it down due to the conflict with his personal morals.

If an 18-year-old girl got pregnant after a one-night encounter with a drunken medical specialist, law firm partner, finance industry executive, or management consultant, her profits from child support in most states would exceed the median after-tax household income in that state. Yet more women pursue college degrees and work for a living than decide to turn their bodies and children into cash.

By reference to Balzac, Piketty points out that it makes more sense to pursue wealth through marriage to an heir than to work. And Piketty might say that our pilot friend is an idiot and that the 18-year-old girls who study boring subjects in college or take jobs that aren’t enjoyable simply aren’t aware of the profit opportunity in having children in the U.S.

Piketty mostly agrees with Balzac that “Behind every great fortune there is a great crime”. Steve Jobs earned his fortune honestly (previous posting) in Piketty’s view, but many rich people got there because they appointed their golfing buddies to the board of a public company or because they established a monopoly. If we adopt Piketty’s facts and assume that 50 percent of rich people are justly rich and 50 percent of rich people are unjustly rich, it comes down to personal morals as to what the correct course of action would be. If we think it is more important to take money away from the unjustly rich then we can establish a wealth tax on anyone with money. If we think it is more important to adhere to the teachings of the Buddha and the Hebrew Bible then we let some monopolists get away so that we don’t steal from those who became wealthy from hard work and/or saving rather than spending. Piketty says that anyone who prefers Choice #2 is an idiot and/or doesn’t have enough data. But maybe people picking Choice #2 simply adhere to a moral code to which Piketty does not subscribe.

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