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The Great Fire Wall of China

As my regular readers know, I am writing from China these days, and have been doing so four years so far. Sometimes the blog becomes inaccessible to me, making it impossible to post regularly. In fact, starting in late September 2014, China began interfering with many Google-owned entities of which Blogspot is one. If the blog seems to go dark for a while, please know I will be back as soon as I can get in again. I am sometimes blocked for many weeks at a time. I hope to have a new post up soon if I can gain access. Thank you for your understanding and loyalty.

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Friday, December 28, 2007

The Problem with the Housing Market is the Schools...

...and mortgage bailouts do nothing to address the root causes. According to the book, The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Parents are Going Broke , the policy whereby students are assigned to a public school based on their address meant that parents who want the best for their children will be forced to buy a home in a desirable school district. A second wage-earner gives the family an edge in competing for scarce homes. But when so many families send Mom to work, the result is that the price of homes is bid up so high that people buy houses they cannot afford, especially after the mortgage industry deregulation of 1980. A side effect is that families headed by single women are forced into deeper poverty, of not only money, but also opportunity.

How should families escape the trap? The book's authors dismiss what they consider to be both the typical conservative approach of living within their means and the typical liberal approach of more government regulation of the housing market.

In order to free families from the trap, it is necessary to go to the heart of the problem: public education. Bad schools impose indirect—but huge-- costs on millions of middle-class families. In their desperate rush to save their children from failing schools, families are literally spending themselves into bankruptcy. The only way to take the pressure off these families to to change the schools....Schools in middle-class neighborhoods may be labeled “public,” but parents have paid for tuition by purchasing a (very expensive) home within a carefully selected school district

Such parents pay tuition in two ways: first, the original mortgage and second, the increased property taxes generated by these overpriced mortgages.
Any policy that loosens the ironclad relationship between location-location-location and school-school-school would eliminate the need for parents to pay an inflated price for a home just because it happens to lie within the boundaries of a desirable school district.

The authors believe that vouchers may be the answer, but not vouchers as currently conceived and hotly debated today. They believe the problem lies in framing the issue as “public-versus-private rift” and that a comprehensive voucher program based a parental choice is essential.
Local governments could enact meaningful reform by enabling parents to choose from among all the public schools in a locale, with no presumptive assignment based on neighborhood...Tax dollars would follow the children, not the parents' home addresses, and children who live in a (less expensive) house would have the same educational opportunities as those who live in a (much more expensive) house.

Open enrollment is already policy in many school districts. Open enrollment is not necessarily tied to a comprehensive voucher program. I am curious to find out if open enrollment helps to put a brake on the overheated housing market as the authors contend. Or perhaps the US could do what Japan does: all taxes go into a central pot fromwhich they are distributed nearly equally to fully fund schools no matter the tax base of the school's neighborhood. Even as it is common knowledge that studies (cited by the authors) show that many Americans believe the American education system, especially in the public schools, is failing, there are also a number of studies that, intriguingly, show it is all a matter of how the questions are asked. When Americans are asked about the school their own child attends, they uniformly say the school is doing a good job, for just one example, this report from ADDitude . My child goes to a good school; everybody else's child goes to a bad school. Such a perception will naturally stand in the way of any meaningful education reform to benefit all children.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Goal in Japan is NOT to Pass the Entrance Exam...

...Rather the goal is to avoid failing it. For Americans this may not seem to be an important distinction, but it is essential for understanding Japanese education. From preschool through high school the goal of every student and every student's mother is that the student will avoid failing the entrance exam. Probably the most crucial entrance exam is the one for high school. Every student in a prefecture (a political entity similar to a state or a province) will take the same entrance exam on the same day regardless of which high school they aspire to attend. But they can only apply to ONE high school and must carefully choose which school according to where they will most likely be able to avoid failing it. It is arguably the most important decision a Japanese person makes in their whole life, and they must make it at age fifteen.

It works like this: If a high school has 500 freshman slots, and 504 students apply, then the entrance exam determines which four students fail. There is no particular passing score. In fact, if the entrance exam is worth 200 points and if the 500th student scores ten points on the whole test, that student “passes.” It means it is possible to pass the entrance exam while getting 95 percent of the answers wrong. Americans are often astonished that some Japanese students commit suicide when they fail the entrance exam, but the 501st student is in true despair. They took the exam on the one day in the year all the high schools are holding the exam and they chose the wrong group to compete against.

There are three kinds of high school. I do not mean there are three tracks in a particular high school. I mean there are three separate and self-contained kinds of high school often located nowhere near each other in a particular region. The most desirable high school is the academic high school. In the Japanese language the academic high school is misleadingly referred to as the “usual” high school. When Americans want to visit a Japanese high school, they will be taken to a “usual” high school as if it were the only kind. In addition, there is the vocational high school for less able (mostly) boys and there is the commercial high school for less able (mostly) girls. Since all three types of high school will be giving the exact same entrance exam on the same day, students must evaluate at which school they will be most likely to avoid failure, that is, avoid being one of the students who fails to win a seat.

But in point of fact, my example of 504 students applying for 500 slots was unfair. Typically, many many students apply for the limited number of slots, so realistically, students will have to achieve very much higher than 5 percent to avoid failure. If the 500th student scores 83 percent, then 83 percent will be the cutoff score. Everyone scoring below 83 percent fails even though, given the difficulty of the exam, such a score is actually an incredible achievement. Each year the newspapers publish the prefectural high school entrance exam a couple days after administration. A little while later the newspapers will publish a variety of entrance exam statistics for each of the high schools in the prefecture. Each year students, parents, and teachers spend a great deal of time studying these exams and annual statistics in an effort to match each student with the high school where they are most likely to avoid failure. If they do fail, students must either study in a private school for the year while awaiting the administration of the next year's entrance exam or abandon plans to continue their education and enter the work force straightway. At which high school to sit for the entrance exam is the most momentous decision a Japanese student will make and the decision is made at age fifteen.