Measurements, inputs, and outputs. And a small civil war.


View 761 Thursday, February 07, 2013


Bill Gates’ Measurements

I read a description of Gates’ ideas in the Wall Street Journal. Assuming the Journal quoted him correctly, much of what he wants to "measure" consists of inputs rather than outputs. Counting the number of vaccinations is measuring an input. What really matters is the reduction in illness. That’s an output, and is the thing which should be measured. All too often people assume a connection between an input and some desired output, and then measure the input. That’s a measure of effort, not a measure of results. During the Vietnam War the Air Force used to measure effort like number of sorties and tons of bombs dropped, not what effect it had on the enemy. This attention to measures of effort rather than measures of results seems to prevail throughout government.

Joseph P. Martino

I once had this conversation with Bill Gates, back about the time he had the first big conference on the CD-ROM, so I think he understands the difference, but I agree that the Wall Street Journal article doesn’t make that very clear. A better example is measuring the effectiveness of schools by the amount of money spent per pupil: nearly everyone knows that throwing money into a school system seldom improves it, and often by rewarding existing (bad) practices has the opposite effect from improving education. So has it been in the past, and so shall it be in future. Numerous studies have confirmed that. Neither more money nor smaller classes are reliable means of improving education.

The first and most important problem in public education is to understand what the goal is. It may be that the best way to do that is to ask why someone without children should pay for the education of other people’s children. Education is not a Constitutional right or entitlement, and even the aggressive federal courts don’t assert that.

The usual argument in favor of compulsory education is that an educated electorate is necessary to the health of a republic. A secondary one is that an educated public is a good investment since it promotes economic growth and a wealthier nation.

You will note that the militant egalitarianism that insists that education is an entitlement and everyone is entitled not only to an education but the same education as anyone else gets does not in fact promote the goals stated in the above paragraph and often makes achieving them impossible. It may be very good for a 15 year old retarded girl to be mainstreamed and kept in age appropriate classes, but it is demonstrably a heavy tax on the other students, who get fewer teacher resources – and this assumes that there are no order and behavior problems, which always absorb teacher and learning time without much positive return. When entitlement rights get involved in education, the educational results generally are worse, and often are far worse. Of course some will argue that it is good for the children of normal and above normal intelligence to be exposed to the sub-normal because there is something inherently good about Diversity, but there don’t seem to be any valid studies showing that you learn algebra better if your class includes someone who never will learn it.

It should be clear that mere exposure to high quality education does not inevitably produce positive results. Actually, trying to teach a high level of understanding to a class that includes low intelligence students is a grueling task, and impossible for all but the best teachers. Yet that is what we seem to be insisting on.

Counting input as a measure of output can be useful if you know the relationship between the input and the output, which is to say, if you have an accurate and testable and tested theory. But in education we don’t generally have that.

And yet. Just about every study yet conducted finds that simply eliminating the worst 10% of teachers in a school – chosen by almost any rational common sense definition of ‘worst’ – results in a great rise in ‘output’ under nearly any rational definition of educational success. I put it that way because many of the studies aren’t meticulous; they’re case histories and observations, not carefully designed experiments.

More another time.

I will note that the main requirement for getting an education is the ability to read. An astonishing number of children reach fourth grade unable to read.  They pass the tests for ‘reading at grade level’ but the ‘grade level’ is itself a clue.  If you can only read ‘at grade level’ then you can’t read.  There’s a simple test. If your fourth grade child has any trouble at all with “big words’ like Constantinople and Timbuktu, or polyethylene, it is likely he can’t read.  That is:  if he can read he can ‘sound out’ those words, and he is likely to have heard them before.  Of course if you can read you can also read words you have never heard before like diethyltrinitroethylene, but you will have trouble with the word, because never having heard it before you not only have to sound it out but get past some ambiguities of pronunciation.  And you certainly won’t know what it means since it’s not a real word.  But you can read it.

For more on this go to Mrs. Pournelle’s reading program, which you can find under The Literacy Connection.


Los Angeles is under a state of siege but it may end soon. We are learning on a very small scale and over a brief period of time something of what the people of Iraq learned during the US occupation. The LA Police are under threat from a terrorist – a former LAPD officer with a grievance – who has already killed the daughter of one former LAPD captain and her fiancé, and has shot three other police officers. He has fired at others. He is a trained sniper.

As a result LAPD officers on protective detail guarding someone believed to be a potential victim of the former policeman turned terrorist fired without warning at two elderly Asian women in a pickup truck resembling the truck believed to be owned by the suspect. They slowed down in front of the house, and they were driving a pickup truck resembling that of the terrorist, and the police opened fire wounding both of the women – who were delivering newspapers including to the house under watch.

Other news reports are that police are questioning traffic stop suspects with drawn weapons.

We now know how people in occupied territories feel although in our case it won’t last long.

Now of course the police (or the US soldiers in Iraq) are concerned and want to protect themselves. They are afraid. They are nervous. They are targets, and specifically targeted by the terrorist – as were the soldiers in Iraq.

The news says that a truck resembling that wanted is on fire high in the mountains. No one knows how it got there or whether it is really the truck. More later. Meanwhile, we enjoy a tiny taste of Civil War in Los Angeles County although only one armed man has declared war on the authorities here. Interestingly the response has been to turn out every officer, without regard to cost or overtime obligations or much else. A bigger response than to riots in which shopkeepers were beaten, burned out, or even killed. He rioters didn’t declare war. They merely burned out stores and shops and looted anything in sight. But this chap declared war on the police.

I am not as unsympathetic to the police as the above may seem; but there are some obvious inferences here. One does not protect a population by putting one’s personal safety first.  That’s a harsh truth, but good cops have always known it.

With luck the chap has been driven to ground in the snow topped mountains above LA and this will end. The skies above Big Bear are filled with aircraft (it’s pretty high for helicopters so fixed wing craft are up there too) and hundreds – literally hundreds – of police, sheriff, Highway Patrol, FBI, BATF, and other vehicles. SWAT teams cover every crossroad. K9 units are on the way. Thousands of police. To hunt down one man who declared war on the police.  I suspect that petty criminals all over the county are rejoicing and smart ones make hay while the sun shines, but I may be presuming too much intelligence on their part.

In any even our terrorist is supposed to be up there in the mountains. Of course that would be a rather stupid thing for him to have done to himself, but when you are one man it is difficult to conduct a civil war.

It’s lunch time.








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