Last night at the Presidential debates Obama described education as our top economic issue. All politicians say education is a top priority, but I've never heard Obama refer to it as the top economic issue. This is interesting because my recent poll of 500 economists listed education as the top economic issue, and I think that surprised a lot of people. We know that Obama is heavily influenced by data, and it's a certainty that members of his campaign saw the results of the survey. Did it have any impact on his message about education?

In my September 17th post about my survey of economists, I said, "We know that kids do best in school when their parents are managing the process right. If either candidate had a plan for educating parents on how to help their kids succeed in school, I think that would be compelling." In Obama's exchange about education he made a point of emphasizing the role of parents in improving the performance of their kids in school. I don't recall hearing that before. And as obvious as that might seem, McCain didn't mention it in his remarks about fixing education.

Obama's comments stopped short of where I think the government needs to be in terms of teaching parents how to coach their kids to be good students. I think parenting is a skill that can be taught, especially in regard to education. Most of the countries that kick the United States' butt in student academic performance spend less per student. That suggests that the biggest point of leverage is at home. And it passes the sniff test, because the top students in any class generally have parents that are actively steering the ship.

Do you think the Dilbert survey of Economists had any impact on Obama's message about education? Or is it just a coincidence?
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Oct 16, 2008
I started thinking about Scott Adams' question at the end of this blog entry: "Do you think the Dilbert survey of Economists had any impact on Obama's message about education? Or is it just a coincidence?" While it might be true that the blog had an effect, it's hard to know. But I don't think that it is just a coincidence. Good ideas have a habit of spontaneously arising in multiple places at around the same time. This has happened over and over in history. Malcolm Gladwell recently wrote quite eloquently about this phenomenon (for example, noting that Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray invented the telephone at the same time; they filed patents for it on the exact same day in 1876):


So it may just be that great ideas and eureka moments aren't as rare as we imagine them to be.
Oct 16, 2008
I find it entirely plausible that Obama's team noticed your survey, Scott. We're talking about a guy who, when asked by Google's CEO what "the most efficient way to sort a million 32-bit integers" was, answered "the bubble sort would be the wrong way to go." Someone who, while he may deserve significant blame for staying with Rev. Wright's church as long as he did, was willing to reject it in the face of sufficient justified public outcry.

This is a man who has proven he can be a good listener.
Oct 16, 2008
If children learn better when their parents are invoved in their education, how would either candiate help educate the parents. Seems like it's too late; that their parents should have made a stronger effort to educate them when they were young, and so on back to the dawn of time. If both candiates are way to late to help get parents involved in education lets just move on to another issue.
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Oct 16, 2008
Bah, he's just pandering to the powerful nerd and economist blocs.

(Congratulations on changing the world yet again.)
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Oct 16, 2008
First off, I don't think it would be out of the question to think Obama may have looked at your blog, or found the data of your study. It's not like you're an unimportant celeb, you know. Of course, you might just be trolling for compliments from your readers, but hey, at least you haven't resorted to Myspace yet.

I do agree, education is the most important economic issue, but are EITHER of the candidates willing to do more than just talk about it? No matter WHO gets in, it's going to require raising taxes somewhere - you can't just pull money out of your ass and give it to a school; change isn't free, and never will be.

But here's the problems with public education/schooling right now:

1.) Money. Not enough of it. Can't afford tech., can't afford to pay teachers. Teachers become uncaring and crappy, students resent going to school and don't learn.

2.) Unfair government standards pertaining to funding: No child left behind is a good CONCEPT, but when you don't fund the schools, and punish them for not meeting these standards by cutting their funding, what the hell do you think is going to happen? FUND THE GODDAMN SCHOOLS.

3.) Apathy. Because of #1, nobody cares about being smart. This is a psychological issue that's harder then the others, though. If you're smart, you're a "nerd" and nobody respects you. If you're creative, you're a "troublemaker", and you get punished. If you're violent and shoot up the school, the government starts fingerprinting the adults because God knows the parents aren't the problem.

4.) Parents. They are the problems. Too soft, kids are too demanding. If a kid gets in trouble, the parent comes down on the school, maybe pulls their kid, school loses funding. You can't even stop a violent child any more hardly, and I know this from a very close source myself: If a student lunges over the desk, grabs the necklace of the secretary and starts trying to choke her, if you try to subdue the kid - not even fight him, subdue - THE SCHOOL WILL GET IN TROUBLE. When you have to have police officers patrol your school as "liason officers" because you lack the power to do anything, this is a sign of a problem.

As you can probably tell, I have some experience in this issue. I'm not making these situations up. All these things lead to kids not living up to ANY potential, let alone their own full potential, flooding the availability of low-rank jobs as burger-pushers and store clerks, without adding significantly to the larger jobs; inventors, people who start new companies, who come up with new ideas... Without them, we further rely on other nations providing us with technological advances. The American "Can Do!" attitude is alive and well - And they have it! (Quote from a John Goodman movie about the auto industry)

Rant off =)
Oct 16, 2008
You hit the nail on the head, there. More money is not the answer for the educational mess. I doubt adding more teachers will solve much, either.

There's an NPR podcast interviewing Geoffrey Canada, and his thoughts on teaching the next generation of PARENTS--specifically those in the poorer communities.

Oct 16, 2008
well, yeah, maybe.....
but i guess u did ur part, tht should be enough
Oct 16, 2008
So is the survey on of your big ideas that is going to make you famous/wealthy/feel important?
You've hinted about these things in the past, without giving any details.
Oct 16, 2008
Is it just me, or do people routinely forget that we are one of the few countries that actually educates, or attempts to educate, EVERY SINGLE CHILD?

There is a reason our test scores are bad by comparison, and while some of it can be attributed to everything said above, I have to believe that it is because the countries beating us selectively educate the best and the brightest.

Supposing that is true, do we really need to be concerned with this as much as the comparison suggests? Are you telling me that our top 10% can't compete with any other nations top 10%? If we can't, or aren't near the top in that respect, then I suggest we worry.

But, I will tell you this as well: education starts in the home, but we desperately need to pay teachers sufficiently to entice the good ones to stay in the field. Without them, no amount of good parenting can make up for poor teaching in the schools, on a national scale.
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Oct 16, 2008
I am now putting my soap box in place concerning education issues:

1. Classroom discipline - essentially not allowed, resulting in teaching to the least common denominator.

2. Unfunded mandates (mostly Federal) - too numerous to list and result in tremendous overhead to local school districts.

3. Parental support (actually, lack thereof) - this is primarily a minority issue (no, I am not racist) due to cultural morays. The single, unwed mother families will not benefit from parenting classes since they are too busy trying to survive in the everyday world.

To all of the teachers/educators reading this blog - do you agree with the issues stated above? If not, please post your own list for review.
Oct 16, 2008
more importantly, did your gravity-as-energy-source posts have anything to do with this?


it's a big battery they want to build in maine that would pump water up at night, during times of slack demand, and release it onto turbines to generate energy at times of peak demand. pretty clever, and sounds suspiciously like an elevator that could do the same thing. 1000 megawatts is a bit bigger than your plan, though.
Oct 16, 2008
I always took the "education as an economic issue" as a statement that the US needs to shift from a manufacturing economy to an information economy. For example, our public elementary school is already teaching my 1st grader how to sight type on the computer.

Regarding a parents role in education, there is no doubt that the interaction at home is the #1 success factor. I correlate a lot of California's public school woes to the fact that housing prices require many 2 income families and, subsequently, less time for the kids.
Oct 16, 2008
To me, parental involvement is one of the strongest arguments for school vouchers and charter schools.

In the voucher system parents have to get involved in school selection, and in turn the school can demand parental participation as a requirement for student enrollment.

The NEA hates this idea with a passion as real competition will either improve or kill off the current system and their strangle hold on teachers and education.

However, the current system had already failed 30 years ago when I graduated from a big city high school, and no amount of funding can save it.

What BO finally said was that he wanted to spend even more on the current system. It seemed to me that he wanted to spend more on practically every issue he mentioned.
Oct 16, 2008
The Economist Magazine has published a survey of economists in the last 4 presidential elections including this one (it came out after yours, mind you). It's more widely read than this blog or CNN.com (certainly amongst democrats), so maybe he got the idea there!
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Oct 16, 2008
Hi Scott,

You should ask his campaign. Be sure to include your readership statistics when asking. If you tell him you have thousands of registered voters who hang on every word of your blog, I am sure you will get some type of partial affirmation. However, if his staffers read any of your blog, there is no way they would ever associate with your blog. You have made too many statements about the futility of voting. I doubt we could ever get an answer that we would believe, but it could be fun to ask.

I like what you have to say, especially about teaching parents. What I hear from various people in education is that the first lesson to parents needs to be “Stop trying to be your kid's best friend and be a parent.” I think the statement “other countries spend less money per student therefore the best point of leverage is at home” is a bit of a stretch, but I certainly agree that parents are a huge influence on the academic achievement of their kids.

After election day and a discussion of why who won, can we change the subject?

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Oct 16, 2008
I would just like to remind everyone that the money spent per student isn't always (and most time not) money spent on the education of such student. Schooling is not the same as education, and the United States governmet, and my own country's, the Mexican government, spends a lot in Schooling.
Oct 16, 2008
But you have to find the right balance or the parents turn into helicopter parents and the kids never learn how to function in the rest of society.
Oct 16, 2008
are you bucking for the treasury secretary or fed chair job? if we could get you into one and Clark Howard (famous consumer advocate and honest/likeable guy here in Atlanta w/a fiscal clue) into the other there might still be hope... it's well known that the smartest/most knowledgable people tend to most underestimate their ability/knowledge (the corollary to the dumbest/clueless overestimate theirs theorem)

are you willing to serve your country? you (like I) have kids now therefore no longer have the luxury of just saying "this country's just gonna get what it deserves/has got comming...". yes, this is somewhat rhetorical and I know it would never happen but just for argument's sake would you ever consider serving an appointment? remember, the fact that you think you're grossly underqualified is actually GOOD!
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Oct 16, 2008
World leaders and CEO's could do a lot worse than keep an eye on Dilbert.

In the end, the success of any enterprise comes down to the productivity of the people who do stuff. The people who manage, control, track finances and support the people who do stuff are enablers. Or disablers in many/most cases - the workers get stuff done despite management/government rather than because of it.
Oct 16, 2008
Your statement that other countries that are kicking out acadmeic butt, and are spending less doing it, is half true. True that the schools are spending less, but after school spending on tutors and special (math, science, english, reading, music, you name it) programs is huge. In South Korea, for instance, it is normal for a family to spend $200 per week, per child, on extra education.

To fix our educational system we need to: 1) go to school 11 months per year, 2) move more quickly through the curriculum (i.e., algrbra in 5th grade, calculus for freshman in high school), and 3) give "F" grades to those who deserve them.
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