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Testing: A Lousy Leadership Model

November 27, 2012 Comments off

In his column today, David Brooks shares the story of a viral email written by Nick Crews, an Englishman who was in despair over the lives of his adult children and the effect it was having on his grandchildren. The vitriolic missive, dubbed “The Crews Missile” excoriates his children for their serial failures and concluded with the following:

“I want to hear no more from any of you until, if you feel inclined, you have a success or an achievement or a REALISTIC plan for the support and happiness of your children to tell me about.”

He signed the e-mail, “I am bitterly, bitterly disappointed. Dad.”

Brooks’ concluding paragraphs discuss how this approach is doomed to failure.

The problem, of course, is that no matter how emotionally satisfying these tirades may be, they don’t really work. You can tell people that they are fat and that they shouldn’t eat more French fries, but that doesn’t mean they will stop. You can make all sorts of New Year’s resolutions, earnestly deciding to behave better, but that doesn’t mean you will.

People don’t behave badly because they lack information about their shortcomings. They behave badly because they’ve fallen into patterns of destructive behavior from which they’re unable to escape.

Human behavior flows from hidden springs and calls for constant and crafty prodding more than blunt hectoring. The way to get someone out of a negative cascade is not with a ferocious e-mail trying to attack their bad behavior. It’s to go on offense and try to maximize some alternative good behavior. There’s a trove of research suggesting that it’s best to tackle negative behaviors obliquely, by redirecting attention toward different, positive ones….

It’s a lousy leadership model. Don’t try to bludgeon bad behavior. Change the underlying context. Change the behavior triggers. Displace bad behavior with different good behavior. Be oblique. Redirect.

As one who thinks the endless testing of children in schools is bludgeoning, I offered the following comment:

As an educator, I can attest to the fact that the Crews Missile Approach fails… and it fails because it “bludgeons bad behavior” (i.e. low test scores) without making any effort to change or even acknowledge the underlying context— which is poverty. No matter how many tests we administer— and we’ve tried a lot of tests in education— the results invariably show a high correlation between poverty and low test scores… yet instead of acknowledging this context and trying to change it we bludgeon the schools and teachers trying hard to work with these children… and it’s a lousy leadership model. 

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Skills Gap or Wage Gap? Either Way, Blame the Schools

November 26, 2012 Comments off

The NYTimes business writer Adam Davidson’s latest article lays out a detailed explanation of how the so-called “skills gap” is a classic case of employers and prospective employees are acting in their rational self-interest are yielding a result that is, in the words of Howard Wial, an economist at the Brookings Institution who specializes in manufacturing employment, “… not socially optimal.”

Here’s the situation: employers claim that they can’t find “skilled workers” but when one looks into their problem more deeply it is evident that that can’t find skilled workers who are willing to work for, say, $10 to $15 dollars per hour. Students, on the other hand, spend lots of money to go into debt to learn the skills the employers desire only to find that the wages offered won’t begin to pay their bills. The result: they find work as branch managers at McDonalds or in retail where the wages are higher.

Howard Wial offers this explanation of what is happening:

In earlier decades… manufacturing workers could expect decent-paying jobs that would last a long time, and it was easy to match worker supply and demand. Since then, with the confluence of computers, increased trade and weakened unions, the social contract has collapsed, and worker-employer matches have become harder to make. Now workers and manufacturers “need to recreate a system” — a new social contract in which their incentives are aligned. 

Davidson elaborates on this:

In retrospect, the post-World War II industrial model did a remarkably good job of supporting a system in which an 18-year-old had access to on-the-job training that was nearly certain to pay off over a long career. That system had its flaws — especially a shared complacency that left manufacturers and laborers unprepared for global trade and technological change. Manufacturers, of course, have responded over the past 20 years by dismantling it.

Having reported that manufacturers chose to dismantle a system where they provided high school graduates with access to middle class wages and training, the ends with this preposterous conclusion:

…this isn’t a narrow problem facing the manufacturing industry. The so-called skills gap is really a gap in education, and that affects all of us.

So it seems that Davidson’s new social contract is this: prospective workers need to pay to get skills that will land them sub-minimum pay and possibly obsolescence if the job they are trained for can be done by a robot or someone overseas. Sounds a lot like feudalism to me.

$97,000/Hour!!!!

November 26, 2012 Comments off

I am in the middle reading “A Minimum Tax for the Rich” of a NYTimes article by Warren Buffett debunking the argument that increasing taxes on the wealthy will cause them to flee the country or diminish their investments… and these paragraphs stopped me dead in my tracks:

A huge tail wind from tax cuts has pushed us (the top 400 wage earners) along. In 1992, the tax paid by the 400 highest incomes in the United States (a different universe from the Forbes list) averaged 26.4 percent of adjusted gross income. In 2009, the most recent year reported, the rate was 19.9 percent. It’s nice to have friends in high places.

The group’s average income in 2009 was $202 million — which works out to a “wage” of $97,000 per hour, based on a 40-hour workweek. (I’m assuming they’re paid during lunch hours.) Yet more than a quarter of these ultrawealthy paid less than 15 percent of their take in combined federal income and payroll taxes. Half of this crew paid less than 20 percent. And — brace yourself — a few actually paid nothing.

As a former math teacher I can quickly determine that $20.2 million yields a $9700/hour salary, and $2.02 million yields $970/hour…. I think these folks could contribute more than 20% of their income toward income and federal taxes…