Sunday, October 26, 2014

"Opportunity Initiative" (Measure 86) Will Harm Oregon's Children

At first glance, the "Oregon Opportunity Initiative" (measure 86) sounds like a great idea, providing college scholarships for deserving children.   Who could argue with that?   Well, I can, for one.  In fact, if you look at the details, this Initiative is a horrible idea that will ultimately harm the children of Oregon in the long term.   Why do I say this?
  • The Opportunity Fund funded will consist of borrowed money, and paying it back will likely come out of other education spending.   Every year we will have a new item on the state budget, paying interest on the opportunity fund loan.   When legislators look to fund this, purely an education-related cost, won't it be natural to take the money out of other education spending?   After all, nearly every legislator claims to have already prioritized education, which means that the state is spending as many of our current tax dollars on education as it believes appropriate. 
  • The Initiative will pump the engine of tuition inflation, ultimately hurting every student who attends college without a full scholarship.   As a society, we seem to have forgotten the laws of supply and demand.   There are numerous scholarship opportunities available for talented, deserving, and needy children to attend college.   But the overabundance of funding and easy loans has freed college tuition from any form of market discipline.  Programs like this enable many marginal students who would not benefit from a college degree, or will end up dropping out anyway, to avoid a realistic cost/benefit analysis.   As a result they will funnel lots of other peoples' money to colleges, as well as mortgaging their own futures through massive loans, and the colleges will happily raise their tuition in response.
  • The Initiative contains a loophole authorizing permanent deficit spending that will bankrupt our state.   A little-discussed clause in the initiative contains the following:  "...when the Governor declares an emergency pursuant to this subsection, the Legislative Assembly, with the approval of four-fifths of the members present in each house, may pass a bill to...  (a) Use the moneys for any lawful purpose if the Legislative Assembly has approved a plan to replenish the fund on appropriate terms."   So in other words, as long as the Governor and the Legislature generate nice-sounding (but unenforcable) pieces of paper, they can loot this scholarship fund for "any lawful purpose" they want.   Do we really expect our politicians to resist the temptation to route even more public funds for favored constituents and special interests?
    So please, don't fall for the pretty language by its advocates of the Oregon Opportunity Initiative being necessary "for the children".  The right decision for Oregon's children is to vote No on Measure 86.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

True Career Readiness

At last week's board meeting, a group of the district's guidance counselors introduced us to the new Naviance system for college and career readiness.   This is an excellent new website that allows students, based on their own personal preferences and qualifications, to explore possibilities for future careers and the education path to get there.   Once it suggests a career, it also has buttons that let them view videos and hear advice from people who were successful in that particular path.    While the counselors put a lot of work into this system and it provides a lot of useful information, though, I believe there is a critical flaw in the concept:  the system refuses to make value judgements about particular careers, and treats all paths as equally valid.   Why do I think this is a reason for concern?

  • There are some careers that simply are not in demand, and students who choose them will have a very bleak future.   For example, I entered "computer engineer" in the search box, and got back a set of personal attributes that are common for engineers.  I then entered "actor" into the search box, and got to a set of personal attributes common for actors.   The system did not make any effort to tell me that if I chose the engineering path, I would be virtually guaranteed to have a job waiting at graduation-- while if I chose the acting path, I would be very lucky to be able to make a living in my chosen field.  Articles such as this one talk about how numerous college majors are very bad ideas for future employment.   
  • This is compounded by the fact that idealistic, immortal-feeling teenagers can easily be led to "follow their passion", and these long-term considerations about making a living tend to be very abstract.   This is a case where students really need wise guidance, and really need strong pushes into the fields where they will be providing useful skills that others will pay for.   Years later they will suffer mightily for their young idealism, but it may very well be too late by then.   Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs fame recently wrote a great article on why following your passion is often a bad idea-- check it out at this link.
  • Many middle class students are being effectively led into a life of indentured servitude, by being encouraged to take out bankruptcy-proof loans that they can never repay, to pay for an education with barely any career relevance.   The fact that many types of student loans cannot be discharged in bankruptcy is another issue that may sound very abstract to a teenager.   But if they take on a $100K debt for that art history degree, they will find it following them around for the rest of their life.   This will impact their chance to own a home or a car, take out loans to start a business, or even years later make it harder to provide for their children's education.   This article talks about majors that will often lead to earning less than a high school graduate, while ending up saddled with this permanent debt.
  • Hearing from successful people in a career tells you nothing about what proportion of those who attempt it are successful.   This is actually an instance of a well-known mathematical fallacy:  "A implies B" does not mean that "B implies A".  For example, suppose a well-known artist talks about how they practiced 12 hours a day to reach their level of success.  This tells you nothing about how many would-be artists practiced 12 hours a day, went to a decent college as an art major, and are now serving coffee at Starbuck's.   The fact that being a successful artist implies you practiced 12 hours a day has no bearing on whether practicing 12 hours a day implies you will be a successful artist.  
  • This implication-fallacy issue also relates to the salary charts in the tool.  They tell you your expected salary *if* you are successfully employed in that field.   What about the many people who started out hoping to enter each career, but ended up underemployed or in an unrelated field due to lack of demand? 
The guidance counselors seemed to think this would not be much of an issue, because the computer system is "just part of a conversation" between students and their counselors.   Perhaps they can help put some realism into students in these conversations, but I suspect the time each student spends with their counselor will be relatively small compared to the time they spend in the computer system.   In any case, since we have this complex computer system already developed, would it really be that hard to also incorporate data about the success rates of people entering various careers?   I brought this up at the meeting, and the staff began discussing the possibilities.   I really think integrating actual demand into this tool's career advice would have the potential to make a huge difference in the future success and happiness of our students.