Saturday, September 28, 2013

Why edX is a failure

When MIT announced MITx I went on the record saying it will be a major flop.

No one had any idea what it was supposed to accomplish but across a wide range of goals it seemed doomed to failure.

Is it an educational gym, providing resources to help you build mental muscle?
Is it a personal trainer, providing you advice on how to train?
Is it a means to signal how smart you are?
Or a networking tool, the main function of a residential college?

It looks like the leadership is mostly hoping to be some combination of gym and signaling device, weighted toward gym. You can get certificates for passing classes, but most of the resources are going into developing tools. Look at the job postings:

Devops Engineer (2x)
Front-end Developer (2x)
Director of Services
Program Manager (2x)
Test Engineer
Software Engineer
Principal Software Engineer

It looks like 70% of their employees are programmers and the other 30% are administrators. Where are the educators? Evidently they aren't that important.

After a year and a half, MITx is well on its way to flopping.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Jindal: We need Low-isiana Standards

Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana announced his opposition to Common Core, an initiative led by 45 state governments to develop common, high standards for our nation's primary and secondary schools.

Jindal decried the "federalization" of education and pushed the state's board of education to avoid damaging the state's reputation as the second dumbest in the nation.

He urged teachers and students in the state to help "put the Low back into Low-isiana. We need Low standards, not D.C. standards." He suggested that Mississippi can pass his state in high school graduation rate if the tests asked students to write in complete sentences or do basic geometry while other states kept in place their comically low bars for high school graduation.

In comments with reporters after the press conference Jindal lamented that "we're just a bunch of dumb hicks in this state . . . let's face it, my dad grew up in India and more people understand his English than mine."

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Why are poor people dumb?

Sendhil Mullanathain and Eldar Shafir have a new book out, Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means Much More.

The book discusses a few experiments in psychology and introduces a few pieces of jargon to help readers remember the main points:

Focus Dividend - when you don't have a lot of time, or money, etc. you economize on its use, and your mind is better able to focus on the task at hand

Tunneling - the focus you get when time, or money, etc. is short has a negative side-effect: tunneling. You can only see things that relate to your goal. If you are own a diet, for instance, you can't stop counting calories, or thinking about sweets...

Bandwidth (Tax) - bandwidth is a loose word for "computational horsepower." Doing things uses up bandwidth and scarcity--of money or time, etc.--eats up bandwidth since, for instance, dieters are using some of their bandwidth repressing urges to eat sweets

That all happens in the first two chapters. The rest of the book has a lot of applications--to poverty and other things no one will remember--but the discussion of poverty has captured most of the attention of the press, including NYTimes essayist Tina Rosenberg.

She asks whether people are poor because of bad choices or whether they make bad choices because they are poor. It's probably a lot of both, but the scarcity paradigm nudges us to acknowledge that is might be more of poverty causing bad habits than we used to think.

The strange thing about the book is that it makes no mention of meditation or mindfulness. Psychologists know how to treat deficits of attention and lack of focus. Meditation, even as little as 15 minutes a day, trains people to bring their focus back to the present. You would think it would help people avoid tunneling while still reaping some benefits of the focus dividend but the book's recommendations are about text messages, simpler forms, and default enrollment . . . which doesn't sound that different from a traditional liberal focus on changing "the system" instead of changing people's behavior.

Second, we know most of what people do is based on habits, not conscious decisions. The bandwidth tax, they have shown, lowers fluid intelligence and executive control, but how does it influence habits? Is there an interaction: rich people don't get a bandwidth tax because they know what to do by habit (draw on a credit line?) while the poor have to think about which lender, which friends to borrow from, if its worth it to fix the car this week or wait until next week? Isn't going to a payday lender also mostly a problem of habit, not a byproduct of bad decision-making when you are tunneling? (As Tina notes, most loans go to people who visit semi-monthly.) This is surprisingly under explored in the book except in passing, calling the tendency of people given abundance to waste it and end up right back in a  scarcity trap the "psychology of abundance," i.e. habits.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Sad news from Florida

Sad cyber bullying story from Florida. Fortunately someone will be punished, although the death penalty is "unconstitutional" for teens it seems like the appropriate punishment.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Do higher minimum wages help to pay the bills?

James Surowiecki calls for a higher minimum wage, but do higher wages really help to pay the bills?

Not as much as you would think.

Part of it is because of taxes. We all know taxes get deducted from our paychecks, so when you get a raise of $2 an hour in Massachusetts you'll pay $0.11 cents an hour in higher state taxes, and $0.30 an hour more in federal taxes (most likely), and then of course contribute $31 cents toward social security and Medicare. So you only get to take home $1.28 of that $2/hour wage. If you spend the money on anything with a sales tax that is really just $1.20 since you'll have to use the other 8 cents to pay the tax.

So a $2 raise for a full-time worker (40 hours) isn't going to free up $80 in their budget, it is going to free up more like $48.

But that's not all. The real difference in take home pay is going to be far less than $1.20 in many cases because our government does a lot to help the poor--and stops doing it when people stop being poor. The $2 raise could cost you eligibility for Medicaid or reduce you subsidy for buying health insurance on the new exchange, reduce your allotment of food stamps, and shrink your Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).

You'll lose $0.60 worth of food stamps for every hour you work and owe $0.32 more in federal income tax as your EITC is phased out. You'll have to pay around $0.52 cents more for your health insurance since you are more able to afford it. And you might also lose eligibility for affordable housing,  Pell Grants and other scholarships for your kids to attend college or free lunch if your kids are younger.

When you add it all up it is possible (and even likely if you have children) that a $2/hour raise wouldn't net you more than $10 a week in the bank. Most of the "income" would all disappear in tax deductions, higher taxes, higher expenses for health care, housing, and food.

That is not to say a higher minimum wage wouldn't help anyone out. Some people apply for few benefits and so have little to lose and people without children generally don't get much help from the government, even if they are poor.