Wednesday Night #1513

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Maybe about 15% of U.S. students are finishing high school with the right education that will allow them to do well in university. Equally worrisome: there has been little or no progress in closing the minority achievement gap

Education And Growth in The 21st century
While BCA publishes a report each month, often the reports deal with market outlooks and related issues. However, periodically the report is one that focuses on a more long-term issue and the current report on the Outlook for Education around the world is one. Education is critical to the prosperity and growth of the world economy. Ultimately our standard of living is determined by our productivity, which in turn is determined by the quality of the economic institutions in the country and at the same time, the quality of its human capital.
The recent release of the OECD PISA Report was, of course, a major influence on the timing (and timeliness) of BCA’s report and many questions concerned the relationship of the findings.
One conclusion of the BCA study is that there is little proof that educational attainment is improving rapidly throughout emerging economies; more discouraging still is that there is an evident decline among developed countries.
Peter Berezin‘s low-key and articulate presentation of the findings of the BCA Report was received with uncharacteristically rapt attention and intense interest. [Please see the Comments at the bottom of the page]

It has been just over half a century since the solution to complex problems could be found in the judicious use of binary figures, cumbersome compilers and room size computers.  In reality, the concept of computers dates back to the birth of homo sapiens, the model of a base ten numerical system evolving from the number of fingers (technically, digits) on which to count and calculate.
Long after the abacus, the spinning jenny and later “smart” machinery became the natural birth parents to the adding machine, the compiler, machine language, COBOL, hence the computer.
The Internet , fibre-optic cable and satellite technology have combined to relegate the Encyclopaedia Britannica to a useful if secondary source of knowledge.  Considering the availability of these powerful tools, it is not surprising that the historical thirst for knowledge and the easy availability of the new technology, educational excellence appears to have, in part, been replaced by the ubiquitous availability of world wisdom via the Internet.
Formal education appears to have lost currency in favour of instant access to the web.  It is even suggested that either deliberately or because of that ease of access, plagiarism has been gaining favour over personal knowledge skills and research by students and researchers alike.  The traditional adage, “publish or perish” might sometimes be sardonically restated as plagiarize or perish.  Of course this view of the situation is grossly exaggerated as it is obvious that each decade demonstrates its contribution of human ingenuity to the evolution of the sum total of human knowledge.

What is troubling, however is the recent PISA report on student assessment worldwide, indicating (to the surprise of many) little improvement in mathematics, everywhere, including in wealthy emerging countries.   In the U.S., despite about 50% increase in spending per pupil, educational achievement appears to be spotty, especially troubling as more jobs increasingly require science and mathematical skills, which, over the next four decades,  the largest growth group (Hispanics) is not expected to attain them.  The exception appears to be Asian Americans who are doing very well academically.  Some Wednesday Nighters point out that easy availability of information, while important, cannot replace an inquisitive, creative mind and perhaps paradoxically,  attempts to solve the problem by raising standards tend only to increase dropout rates without any offsetting advantage.

There appear to be three important public policy issues, namely that everyone wants creative minds, everyone should be able to expect a job and everyone should be able to expect continuing employment.  Students appear to know what they want to do in life but are unwilling to do what they have to do to get there.  It’s at the high school level that the gains have been lacking, where knowing where to search for answers appears to have become more important than learning how to solve the problem through logic, research and/or experience.   Although the education system tends to be blamed, the responsibility may very well lie in the social process.  In North America, people train students to past tests.  In Scandinavia, education begins by first teaching children the joy of learning,  followed by the teaching, hence learning, process.

The problem may be more cultural than educational and greater spending has not appeared to be the solution.  It has been suggested that rather than focusing on low performance students, it would be more productive to encourage higher performance on the part of those doing better.  Possibly  parents should play a greater role as generally the best schools are those in which the parents are most involved.

One Wednesday Nighter commented that a recent survey of the performance of students in English-language schools in Québec shows a surprising shift. Previously, it was always true that students in the Jewish day schools would have excellent results, and that as different immigrant groups became prominent, their children would reflect the immense value placed on education within their communities – and would score very high. This no longer appears to be true; the trends is towards an evening-out of results amongst all groups. The second finding is the identification of a large underclass of those who feel ‘disconnected from the system’ , of which a surprising number come from economically disadvantaged English-speaking communities, despite the fact that the study focused on grade school through CEGEP, all of which are free (thus, the family financial situation should not have been a factor).

The stock market
As previously predicted at Wednesday Night, the stock market declined in February after having risen significantly since July as money previously set aside was released for investment.  It is anticipated that the current pause will continue through March into April.  Gold, gold and oil stocks are poised to continue rising. Technical analysts and fundamentalists disagree (this is new?) and our ‘Swiss banker’ remains unconvinced by the technicians’ enthusiasm, preferring to remain 40% in cash. Another expert suggests that while this could be a cyclical bull market, it is looking pretty sickly and the Achilles heel of the U.S. is $4 p/g gas, which could be coming soon. Consumer sentiment and gas prices tend to go hand-in-hand and housing prices are also important to U.S. economy.
Meanwhile, Diana asks which Wednesday Nighter has information about the theft of the gold bars Beware kangaroo-stamped gold bars, Toronto police say
Toronto’s Financial Crimes Unit said a quantity of gold bars was purchased in Montreal between Feb. 9 and 11, by someone using a fraudulently obtained bank draft worth $1,895,751.
A brief philosophical debate: does Insider Trading apply to someone who does not buy on the basis of insider information – if so, how do you identify those individuals who have failed to act?
Notes on the world economy
Although China currently has an inflation problem, as an emerging market  it is second in the world, poised to be first, with continuing growth.  China does have an inflation problem, but its invincible government will not hesitate to act.  Oil prices are very high, but at least one Wednesday Night expert predicts that Saudi Arabia will not be touched by the current crises in the Middle East, which will ultimately settle down and the price of oil will ultimately decline.

Kimon advises that Wednesday Nighter ” Pierre Arbour will participate in the New School of Athens Montreal Dialogues Quebec Model round table as a panelist and has also promised to make a financial contribution to the NSoA Conference. Pierre has written a book on Quebec Inc and is presently updating it. He will present his new ideas at the Conference.”

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Prologue

Not sure about introducing Peter’s topic with this item, but somehow, we couldn’t resist the segue:
German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg has announced his resignation after weeks of criticism for plagiarism in his Ph.D. Chancellor Angela Merkel said she’d accepted his decision with “a heavy heart.” (We suspect that privately she had sharper comments. Why do some politicians believe that they are immune from investigation of their misspent youth?)

Peter Berezin will share with us the findings of the BCA Special Report of which he is the author “Taking Off The Rose-Colored Glasses: Education And Growth in The 21st century”; as you may deduce from the title, he paints a generally pretty bleak picture. There are also some fascinating observations about enrollment figures versus quality of education and the distinctions between the few countries where broad-based educational achievement is the norm, versus those where the number of students who excel is limited. The impact on a nation’s growth and development, especially in terms of income inequality, is obvious. We and Peter look forward to your comments and debate.

Peter’s findings are highly relevant to the U.S. budget debate and the wrong-headedness of the Republicans’ stance on where to cut. Read Paul Krugman’s piece on Leaving Children Behind and David Brooks echoes his concerns regarding the cuts made to education in every form. The latter’s poignant statement that “the future has no union” is particularly telling.

There’s not much good news, but at least, the U.S. government will not be shut down – Monsters & Critics reports that The House of Representatives has agreed to fund the government for an extra two weeks, with Senate approval expected on Thursday. It’s a stop-gap measure and only in the nick of time – but better than nothing – and will afford the President and Congress “a small window to iron out massive differences over the level of government spending in the longer term”. What a stupid and wasteful game of Chicken this is.

Further to the on-going discussion of the decline of the U.S., we highly recommend Gideon Rachman’s piece in the January/February issue of Foreign Policy Think Again: American Decline – This time it’s for real. Despite his gloomy assessment, he concludes that “The United States still has formidable strengths. Its economy will eventually recover. Its military has a global presence and a technological edge that no other country can yet match. But America will never again experience the global dominance it enjoyed in the 17 years between the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 and the financial crisis of 2008. Those days are over.” And perhaps we should all be thankful?

We cannot ignore international current events, especially the situation in Libya, about which we would quibble with our ever-reliable NYT, which insists that “With escalating hostilities bringing Libya closer to civil war” – at what point do those ‘escalating hostilities’ that have resulted in a fair-sized chunk of the country being under opposition control, morph into civil war?  When fighter pilots are bombing their nation’s cities, surely that is a civil war?

There is Canadian content to this story. Despite the sloppy evacuation efforts of the government (wouldn’t one think that diplomats, like captains of ships should be the last to leave?), Canadian companies, of which SNC has the largest workforce, seem to be doing a better job. For those of you who do not know the extent of SNC’s contracts in Libya, we are pleased to inform you that the firm was engaged by the about-to-be-gone government to construct the first prison to be built according to international human rights standards. [will Canada follow suit?] SNC-Lavalin says the job is an opportunity to share values essential to all citizens of the world. [we did not make this up – it comes from RCI] The company also says it hopes the prison project will be a model for others built in the region. Will Colonel Gaddafi/ Qaddafi be its first inhabitant?

On another aspect of the events, we would be remiss if we did not call your attention in particular to China‘s unexpected rallying to the cause of human rights in the Security Council. In an editorial, the Christian Science Monitor suggests that the country’s leadership is likely to be increasingly called upon to try to balance its internal policies with new foreign realities. (The Christian Science Monitor) We suspect that the leadership will not be unduly influenced by the connection, but there may be some leverage to be exercised internationally.

Finally, an ironic footnote you may have missed. The London School of Economics … accepted a pledge of £1.5m from the Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation and … awarded Qaddafi’s son and heir, Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, who controls the foundation, a PhD in political theory in 2008.
Mr Qaddafi’s PhD thesis, titled “The Role of Civil Society in the Democratisation of Global Governance Institutions” looks as if it is a classic of the genre. Here is his summary of his argument, which he advances with lots of references to John Rawls and other liberal worthies:
The core aim of the thesis, then, is to explore the potential for the concept of Collective Management to develop a more democratic, morally justified system of global governance that recognises the rights of individuals…and is particularly focused on empowering civil society organizations (CSOs) to give a stronger voice to those currently under-represented in the existing system The Economist. We wonder if he, like the German Defense Minister, plagiarized large chunks? [Update: we were right! Foreign Policy reports: The LSE is backtracking furiously from its connection with Saif, announcing yesterday that it would return almost $500,000 that it had received from his foundation. It has also opened an investigation into growing evidence of plagiarism in his doctoral thesis.]

We have a certain number of climate change deniers amongst us, but believe we may have found the single most convincing argument: Top French Wines at Risk from Climate Change  Bordeaux wines are under threat from global warming, say industry experts, who warn that the southwestern French region may no longer be suitable for winemaking by 2050. Winegrowers are already switching to heat-resistant grape varieties as a precaution.

So it’s time to bring your Bordeaux to Wednesday Night and sip it while it lasts.

3 Comments on "Wednesday Night #1513"

  1. Antal (Tony) Deutsch March 1, 2011 at 5:37 pm · Reply

    The [BCA] study on education is very useful, timely, but hardly only applicable to the U.S. Generally, industrial (and post-industrial??) societies would do well to increase the investment component of education at the expense of the consumption content.
    I would not dismiss structural factors in US unemployment as quickly as BCA does. Classic structural unemployment would be something like former steelworkers living in the shadow of permanently shut-down steel mills. The workers would not have the ability or the opportunity to acquire new marketable skills. BCA presents a pie-chart of a rough breakdown of former employment of the present stock of the out-of-work, and concludes that with an increase in effective demand, these folks could get back to where they were before the recession. What gets underplayed here is the depreciation of vintage human capital. A former bank-teller may have been permanently displaced by an ATM. A programmer whose skills froze into the system of his former employer may lack the ability to take current programming jobs, even though the statistics will show him as an unemployed practitioner of a profession normally much in demand. The night watchman may have been replaced by an alarm system, even though his former employer might continue to thrive. Increases in Keynesian effective demand will not get these chaps back to work. The acquisition of new marketable skills might.

  2. Guy Stanley March 1, 2011 at 5:40 pm · Reply

    It seems, I think, perhaps, most western school systems are designed so that only the top 15 or 20 percent emerge to go on to university and to form the next generational élite – in other words, they are performing as they were designed to perform. It would be interesting to try to correlate PISA achievement with Gini scores. A look at the table suggests to me anyway the hypothesis that European and North American countries with more equal income distribution tend to do better on the international tests. The striving of Chinese students has been legendary even before the 20th century revolutions. Countries emerging from a colonial past also face obstacles not present in other societies. As to the underlying assumption that education–or even STEM (newish buzzword for science, technology, engineering and math) skills lead automatically to high income employment is also less accurate, I think, when the macro economy is not stimulated to provide “full” employment–something that tends to go along with a goal of achieving more even income distribution.

  3. Antal (Tony) Deutsch March 5, 2011 at 3:22 pm · Reply

    Re our discussion about the emerging underclass last Wednesday … this Globe and Mail article How Canada scores in math skills across the country gives us a pretty good idea where the Canadian complement is going to live, apparently by census district.
    It might be interesting to discover the counterpart studies for the US and for Europe. Suppose such exist, one might be able to test the hypothesis that decentralized education is more/less effective than centralized systems.

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