Friday, January 23, 2009

Iraq was a mistake

There has been a subtle but steady shift in the dialog around the Iraq War that has all but eliminated discussion of the actual merit of the invasion. The talk has been about the surge, did it work? How Iraq is now peaceful and ready to become a harmless, even supportive friend to the west. Bush and Cheney left town claiming that the war was won, we were safer for it, and they had saved lives.

The claim of saving lives is hard to believe when multiple reports put the violent deaths since the invasion at over 500,000. Keeping Americans safer doesn't seem to apply to the over 4,000 killed while serving in Irag, 1,000 more than the 9/11 event, with official estimates of wounded at over 30,000.

Under what scenario can one imagine Iraq attacking the US and causing those kinds of casualties? Call 9/11 all of the bad things that it deserves to be called but military genius doesn't apply to this action, it was truly a "Black Swan" of terrorist attacks, down to the collapse of the towers when the pilots were just hoping to hit the towers.

The question isn't whether anything like that can ever happen again, that answer is always maybe, but whether it is less likely to happen because of what we have been doing in Iraq. Is the pain and suffering this has injected into to the lives of those whose families fall into the groups affected by the gruesome death and injury statistics mentioned above outside of the benefits, and if so then who benefitted? You say 25 Million Iraqi's, but with 1 million killed, millions more displaced and a new set of alliances with Iran is that really true?

The reaction of the world community to 9/11 was an overwhelming extension of sympathy and support, but we took that opportunity and turned it into a strange vendetta for the Bush family, providing a war to make a Great Man out of Bush, with Rumsfeld and Cheney trying to out Churchill each other.

The Surge is a paradox, it is a timely event that has been met with calmer times, but it is also given sole credit for something that happened that may be due to other reasons. Some other factors include the payments to Iraqi's so that they wouldn't shoot at Americans, essentially protection money to for our soldiers in their country. Another factor is the switch from anger to greed that led Iraqi's to realize that the longer we stayed the more money we would spend, as indicated by the huge new Embassy which will be a significant part of non-oil GDP for Iraq. (Iraq gets 90% of its GDP from oil).

I'm glad there is less violence but also know that an American died yesterday and there is a very good chance that another will die before the week is out, good people who go back again because war is a strange drug that builds relationships and emotional ties that defy understanding to those that haven't experienced it firsthand.

The surge is the distraction that allowed the Hawks to divert discussions from the folly of the primary action with the idea that there was something that could be called success, and we all feel better because people like success more than failure. But the truth is closer to Vietnam and Korea than WWII, there is no success here, just the same old war stories we've had since Homer to be recorded in books and movies for the next generation to understand as history.

The only relevant point is this, would we have been less safe without going into Iraq, and the clear answer from all available facts is no. Would more than 4,000 more Americans have been killed by terrorists, would 30,000 be wounded, many disabled for life, all scarred forever? Would 500,000 people be dead from war related violence? Would hundred of thousands of peoples lives been changed forever due to a tour of duty in a war zone? Would over $1 Trillion and counting of US dollars have been spent on nonproductive efforts, much of it going into the hands of the people we are fighting?

You can talk about the surge all day long but the facts are clear, Iraq will go down in history as one of the worst presidential blunders of all times.

It is the big daddy ego trip of all ego trips in a time where we are living in the land of the giant ego trips. From the Mission Accomplished debacle to the plans for getting greeted with roses and riches by the Iraqi's, this has been one last drunk for W and a set of war games for the administrations neo-con war machine.

But above all, and finally, invading Iraq was a mistake.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Education and why we all may be teachers...and students

In full disclosure I am not a education expert, a teacher, or even a school board member. Heck, I wasn't even much of a student, even though I managed to scrape together an engineering degree.

That was 35 years ago and it has served me well, although being more of a manager and business owner for the last 20 years has taken the hard edge off of my technical training years ago. What became more interesting to me than the hardware or software was the "wetware" , in other words, me and you.

So I became a consultant for technology start ups, building business models that incorporate behavioral characteristics of both company personnel and customers, much of it based on the work of Kahneman/Tversky.

It was with some surprise that I found myself working with a company that was applying technology to the educational field, an area of business that was typically not interesting due to the tight, old boy supplier networks (see upcoming post on text book publishers) and myriad layers of red tape along with a dash of corruption for good measure.

Great potential for the company was apparent from the beginning, the founder was a smart person that spent two years tutoring to gain insight into the learning process, the technology was the outcome of 14 years of investment into a military training system that focused on the best ways to teach math so that it can be retained and applied. They had developed a product that was excellent on all counts.

All good things until you looked at the market, and since they were paying me to do just that I found myself reading story after story, post after post, about No Child Left Behind, the schism in the opinion of the believers and nay sayers were of Grand Canyon proportions with both sides trying to make points with statements deeper in ideology than in fact.

Having some time to read into the subject over the holidays there were several things that became clear, the first was that the school systems have had a continually increasing mandate to provide more than education, while the schools themselves were spending more time on financial management issues than educational issues.

In addition to education schools must provide racial equality, economic compensation (e.g. free lunches), social exposure and discipline. Some school personnel would add to this list but you get the idea.

The second point is apparent to any of us that listen to politicians, starting in California home owners have rebelled against paying more for schools at the same time that teachers unions have increased their demands for higher pay. As a result teachers have gone from being the "lowest paid professional" to being near the top of the scale when actual hours worked is factored in, and do pretty well even when it isn't.

Teachers continually resist performance pay, the weeding out of bad teachers and other aspects of the work place that are the norm for most.

What has emerged from the research is amazing in some sense, but for those of us that always look for the counter intuitive "Truths" that don't hold up under scrutiny, is getting to be expected.

Most surprising was the small correlation between a teacher's credentials and the classroom performance, there seems to be no advantage to the extra bonus we pay teachers to get Master's and other certifications as measured by the only way we know how to measure school performance in the near term, testing.

This explains the some of the rapid increase in the cost of public schooling with no detectable improvement, from a business perspective schools should actually discourage many teachers from getting a graduate degree so that salaries can be tied to student performance instead of teacher scholastic performance as prescribed by parts of NCLB.

The facts show that almost anyone with a college degree and many without, know enough to teach elementary or middle school material. It is also becoming clear that the ability to effectively teach is not known until someone actually teaches, add to that the differences in classroom teaching and tutoring and you see a profession that has become unsure how to measure quality.

The Home School results were reinforcing to this "credentials are the answer" myth that has driven increasing costs in early education, there is very low correlation between the home school "teacher's" education and qualifications and their students outcomes. On an average the home schooled student will out perform public or private schooled kids by 15-30% on a wide variety of tests regardless of the parents education.

There is enough history now to see that Home Schoolers do better in college and on the job, debunking the common complaints of lacking social skills. The socialization aspect of school has always been a farce to those of us who spent more time in school trying not to get picked on that socializing.

So what do we do with this information?

We take a shot at thinking the main thing to teaching is the connection between teacher and learner, and that it is not a one size fits all solution.

We teach our kids, everyone should take a shot at teaching somewhere along the line. I've tutored on Saturdays for the last 5 years, there are online sites that need tutors and will pay a little money for doing it, we all have a little to teach and some have a natural talent that could make them life long teachers.

But the number of life long teachers is going to go down, while the number of life long learners is going to go way up, almost all of us will be in that group to keep skills relevant and sharp.

The disruption that has changed every field of work, computers, many of them mobile, the Internet and massive online data storage, is about to hit education. Just in time in my view, we need smart people with access to education regardless of where their parents went and what football team they like, at prices less than half of their lives salaries.

As for the materials for teaching, companies like Apangea Learning that I'm working with, and others are developing something we call a Student Centric, Adaptive Learning System (SCALS). This is a hybrid teaching solution that combines, problem tutors, concepts teachers and interactive Avatars to deliver a learning experience that outperforms classroom teaching on nearly every dimension.

Anyone, anywhere, anytime is where education is going, so we can life long learn and intermittently teach, from a simple computer. We pay to learn and teach to earn, compounding knowledge and shortening the path to a smarter, higher skilled society.

So the next time you are wonder what a teacher thinks, listen to your self and if you want to hear from a student head to the mirror. We are in a global economy and the next 100 years will be all about learning how to create true equality and 100% utilization of resources, Human resources in this century, not minerals or materials.