Why President Obama is an Outlier

March 5, 2009
(Guest Post by Dan Lips)

In his new book, Outliers, best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell examines why some people become extraordinarily successful and others do not.

Challenging the conventional notion of the self-made man, Gladwell argues that most great success stories spring from unique advantages and opportunities that enable remarkable achievement.

Consider Bill Gates. Most people know how, as a young computer whiz, he dropped out of Harvard to start Microsoft and revolutionize the software industry and the American economy in the process. But often overlooked in this simple tale are the events in Gates’ life that put him on the path to greatness.

Gladwell explains that, as a teenager, Gates attended a private school that offered a computer club. At a time when few colleges were offering students hands-on computer experience, Gates was practicing real-time computer programming in the eighth grade. This early experience led Gates to capitalize on other unique opportunities, including working part-time testing code for a local tech company and sneaking into the University of Washington at night to steal time computer programming.

These unique opportunities made Bill Gates an outlier, as he admits: “I had a better exposure to software development at a young age than I think anyone did in that period, and all because of an incredibly lucky series of events.”

Or consider perhaps the greatest outlier of our time: President Barack Obama. Part of what captures the public’s imagination about our new president is that his is the quintessential tale of the self-made man.

You know the story. The son of an absent African father, the young Obama was raised by his mother and grandparents in middle-class America. He went on to earn degrees from Columbia and Harvard University, where he became the first black president of the law review. This historic achievement earned the young lawyer a book deal from a top publisher and a grip on a career ladder that he climbed to the top of Illinois politics and, finally, to the White House.

Perhaps the most important door to open in young Obama’s life came in 1971, when, at age 10, he received a scholarship to enroll in the private Punahoa school in Hawaii.

He spent the next eight years learning aside the children of the elite in the state’s most prestigious school, where he came to thrive in academics, athletics and extracurricular activities.

After being elected to the Senate in 2004, Obama returned to the school and spoke about its importance in his life: “There was something about this school that embraced me, gave me support and encouragement, and allowed me to grow and prosper. I am extraordinarily grateful.”

In the cases of both Gates and Obama, it takes a special person to take advantage of their opportunities. But it’s fair to conclude that Gates likely wouldn’t have founded Microsoft had he not joined a computer club in 1967, and that Obama wouldn’t have become president had he not attended the Punahoa school.

In the latter case, one wonders what might have become of Obama had he not received his scholarship. Would he have even graduated from college (let alone Columbia and Harvard) if he attended one of Hawaii’s generally mediocre public schools instead of Punahoa? The America’s Promise Alliance reports that the high-school graduation rate in Honolulu’s public schools is just 64 percent. In 2007, only 20 percent of Hawaii’s eighth-grade students scored “proficient” in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The point of Gladwell’s book isn’t to explain away our greatest successes, but to challenge us to create a society where one doesn’t have to be an outlier to be a success. “To build a better world,” he writes, “we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that determine success with a society that provides opportunities to all.”

One way to level the playing field would be to give all children access to educational opportunities similar to those enjoyed by Gates and Obama. The new president could help make that a reality in the US by supporting the principle that all families — regardless of background — should have the power to choose the best school for their children and by challenging lawmakers across the country to make that promise a reality.

President Obama knows the benefit of that opportunity — he’s passing it along to his daughters by enrolling them in an elite private school in Washington. As president, he could fight to give more children in the District and beyond the same opportunity.

Every child deserves a chance to become the next Bill Gates or Barack Obama, not just the outliers.

Dan Lips is a Senior Policy Analyst for education at the Heritage Foundation.

Munchausen by Proxyocracy

February 4, 2009

I See Bankrupt People!

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Byron Schlomach and I had fun co-authoring this piece for the Goldwater Institute:

The supernatural thriller “The Sixth Sense” features a young boy who assists the ghost of a young girl in exposing her mother as her murderer. The mother, suffering from an uncommon mental disorder known as “Munchausen by Proxy Syndrome” had slowly poisoned her daughter to death.

While actual Munchausen by Proxy Syndrome (MBPS) is very rare, something much like it is sadly all too common in American policy-making.

MBPS involves a caregiver deliberately making another person sick. The caregiver may exaggerate, fabricate, or even induce symptoms. The perpetrator achieves a twisted satisfaction from deceptively gaining the attention and sympathy of doctors and others. Because the caregiver appears to be so caring and attentive, often no one suspects any wrongdoing.

In politics, many of our longstanding, serious policy problems are similarly inflicted upon us by our alleged caregivers. Two obvious examples of this political slow-poisoning: runaway costs in heath care and higher education. Simply put, government policies have spun heath care and higher education costs out of control.

These damaging cycles of cost inflation are the direct result of the MBPS-like policies administered by the federal government. When citizens raise concerns that health care or a college degree are financially out of reach for many, politicians show their compassion by administering more of the bad medicine that created the problems in the first place.

Consider health care. The problem is people can’t afford it. Although history shows medical care prices do not inevitably rise, medical inflation more than doubled general inflation from 1960 to 2006. If medical prices had not raced ahead of general inflation, health care would represent 7% of the American economy rather than the current 16% and growing. While many politicians want to make the availability of health insurance the issue, the real issue is that medical care is becoming increasingly less affordable, reducing accessibility.

Americans went from paying the lion’s share of medical costs ourselves to depending on government (Medicare and Medicaid) and employer-provided health insurance to pay for us. Consequently, price has become no object and we have become uninformed and unwise shoppers for medical care. Providers have become wasteful, often taking advantage of this distorted market, competing on a non-price basis.

All of this has occurred because government tax policy has encouraged employers to pay us in health benefits instead of cash. Add Medicare and Medicaid bureaucracy to the mix, and you’ve got a perfect prescription for out-of-control costs and increasingly reduced accessibility.

What are politicians offering as a solution? The Obama administration offers more of what got us here in the first place: expanded insurance, expanded market regulation, expanded Medicare, Medicaid, and SCHIP. As we pay even less out-of-pocket, medical prices will only get higher and medical services will only get more expensive and less accessible.

Amazingly, higher education costs have been rising at a rate even faster than medical cost inflation. Since 1982, the average cost of college tuition and fees has increased by 439% while median family income increased by a mere 147%. Think of it as compound interest for putting college financially out of reach and/or crushing families with debt.

Again, President Obama has proposed more of the same: a $4,000 tax credit for higher education expenses. Sounds great, but based on decades of bitter experience we have every reason to believe that if Obama’s tax credit plan passes, universities would simply hike their tuitions and fees. Congress has been chasing its own tail on college affordability for decades: while providing ever-increasing subsidies, costs continue to go up, so it repeats the process again and again.

Please- no more Congressional medicine!

Obama’s policy plans will simply add more fuel to the fire, leaving our very serious affordability problems in higher education and health care unaddressed. This is not change that we can believe in, but more of the same.

Like the MBPS abuser, politicians often come across as compassionate as they indulge their pathologies. If our politicians suffer from MBPS, we suffer our own sort of insanity in allowing ourselves to be victimized by it year after year. Our form of insanity could be referred to as Battered Taxpayer Syndrome, and it is time to call a halt to it.

It is a fallacy for the public to judge our leaders by their stated intentions, rather than the results of their decisions. Why is health care so expensive in the United States? Why the crushing debt for college educations of no greater worth than those obtained decades earlier at far less cost? Sadly, it’s because of federal policies whose follies have been repeatedly reinforced.

Rather than Munchausen by Proxy politicians, we need leaders who will follow the Hippocratic Oath: first, do no harm.

PJM on the Incredibly Interesting Uninterestingness of Arne Duncan

December 18, 2008


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

This morning, Pajamas Media carries my column on the selection of Arne Duncan as Obama’s education secretary. At first, I agreed with Jay’s assessment that the choice is a boring subject, but after thinking about how boring it is, I now find it fascinating:

It really is amazing how totally uninteresting — how completely devoid of any possible justification for paying attention to it — the choice of Duncan for education secretary is. In fact, the selection has succeeded in fascinating me by achieving such an unprecedented level of anti-fascinatingness. It repels my interest so strongly that I can’t stop thinking about it.

Not that this means I’m wowed by the pick:

If Duncan is acceptable to everybody, that’s another way of saying he’s the lowest common denominator. And as a great education reformer once said: “Woe to you when all men speak well of you.”

Sidwell Friends, America’s Worst School

November 26, 2008


Sidwell Friends Middle School Building

“Brand new, but built to look obsolete and run down!”

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Two weeks ago, Jay ruffled a few feathers by arguing that we shouldn’t care where President Obama’s children go to school. His point was that it isn’t necessarily hypocrisy for school choice opponents to send their kids to private schools, if they believe that private education is valuable (and thus something they’re willing to pay to acquire) but not the kind of thing government should subsidize to ensure equal access.

At the time, my response was that I totally believe Obama opposes school choice because he thinks government shouldn’t be in the business of ensuring that rich and poor alike have equal access to valuable goods and services, and I eagerly look forward to seeing this prinicple applied to his positions on welfare, health care, housing, labor policy, the environment, economic bailouts, entitlements, farm subsidies, taxes . . .

This morning, Jonah Goldberg argues that yes, Obama’s choice of Sidwell Friends while he opposes school choice makes him a hypocrite – but hypocrisy is overrated as a sin (this is a longtime hobbyhorse of Goldberg’s) and the real scandal is simply Obama’s (and other politicians’) opposition to choice. I couldn’t agree more.

But maybe school choice isn’t the only reason we should be interested in where the Obamas send their kids to school. This week, America’s Last Education Labor Reporter points out that Sidwell Friends is in abominable shape, and in desperate need of improvement:

It would be a shame if the Obama kids were to miss out on all these benefits, so we humbly submit these additions and subtractions to make Sidwell Friends the type of school the experts want all schools to become:

* Add a unionized workforce and a collective bargaining agreement. NEA asserts “that the attainment and exercise of collective bargaining rights are essential to the promotion of education employee and student needs in society.” How can the Obama kids have their education needs filled without agency fee, release time, grievances, binding arbitration and strikes?


* Add geographic enrollment boundaries. The Obamas will reside 3.5 miles from one Sidwell campus and 8 miles from the other, located in the state of Maryland. What’s next, flying in the next generation of Kennedy kids via helicopter from Massachusetts? Limit enrollment to those in the immediate neighborhood.


* Subtract weak teacher benefits. According to the Sidwell web site, teachers pay 10-40% of their health insurance premiums, pay into a defined contribution retirement plan, and receive only two personal days a year.


* Add diversity. The Obama kids will become part of the 39% of Sidwell students who are racial/ethnic minorities. But the DC Public Schools are 95% racial/ethnic minorities. How can the Obama children be denied so much of the rich cultural mix our nation’s capital provides?


* Subtract religion. The Quaker tradition is part of daily life at Sidwell Friends, including weekly worship meetings for all students, Quaker or not. This isn’t very inclusive of the Catholics, Muslims, Hindus, Wiccans and animists among the student body. Religious beliefs should only be studied from an academic standpoint and never practiced within a school’s walls.


* Add to the curriculum. Grades PreK-4 emphasize things like phonics, handwriting, vocabulary, comprehension, grammar, fractions, algorithms, geometry, and American history. Upper grades are heavy with English literature, advanced math, history, science, foreign languages and the arts. There isn’t much “getting information from television, film, Internet, or videos” or “Represent multiplication as repeated addition” for lower grades, or “Identify the countries, such as Italy, Poland, China, Korea, and Japan, where large numbers of people left to move to the United States at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries” for upper grades. We don’t want to saddle a 21st century President with an 18th century curriculum.


As patriotic Americans, how can we stand by while our president’s family gets such substandard services?

Or maybe we shouldn’t be worried. After all, family and environmental influences are the only real determinants of educational outcomes. And clearly the Obama children are well blessed in that respect.

Or maybe we should be worried. After all, the Obamas did pick this shockingly substandard school, even though they had the opportunity to go with the nation’s most lavishly funded and heavily unionized schools in the D.C. public system, so how smart can they be?

Looking Abroad for Hope

November 5, 2008


HT despair.com. Looking for a Christmas idea to suit the new reality? Why not a despair.com gift certificate – “For the person who has everything, but still isn’t happy.”

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Looking around for something to give me hope this morning, I find the best place to turn (for today, at least) is outside the U.S. Specifically, I turn to the recently released study in Education Next by Martin West and Ludger Woessmann finding that around the world, private school enrollment is associated with improved educational outcomes in both public and private schools, as well as lower costs.

Well-informed education wonks will say, “duh.” A large body of empirical research has long since shown, consistently, that competition improves both public school and private school outcomes here in the U.S., while lowering costs. And the U.S. has long been far, far behind the rest of the world in its largely idiosyncratic, and entirely irrational, belief that there’s somthing magical about a government school monopoly.

And private school enrollment is an imperfect proxy for competition. It’s OK to use it when it’s the best you’ve got. I’ve overseen production of some studies at the Friedman Foundation that used it this way, and I wouldn’t have done that if I didn’t think the method were acceptable. However, that said, it should be remembered that some “private schools” are more private than others. In many countries, private school curricula are controlled – sometimes almost totally so – by government. And the barriers to entry for private schools that aren’t part of a government-favored “private” school system can be extraordinary.

That said, this is yet another piece of important evidence pointing to the value of competition in education, recently affirmed (in the context of charter schools, but still) by Barack Obama. Who I understand is about to resign his Senate seat – I guess all those scandals and embarrasing Chicago machine connections the MSM kept refusing to cover finally caught up with him.

PJM on Candidates’ Education Flip-Flops

November 3, 2008

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Over the weekend Pajamas Media carried my column on how Obama and Palin have flip-flopped on education:

Suppose I told you Candidate A has supported rigorous academic standards, has stood up to the teachers’ unions — even been booed by them at their convention — and proclaimed the free-market principles that schools should compete for students and better teachers should get higher salaries. On the other hand, Candidate B says that competition hurts schools, that kids should be taught a radical left-wing civics curriculum, that we should throw more money at teachers’ unions — excuse me, at schools — and that rigorous academic standards should be replaced with the unions’ old lower-the-bar favorite, “portfolio assessment.”

Candidate A is Barack Obama. So is Candidate B.

Meanwhile, Candidate C has made an alliance with the teachers’ unions, opposed school choice, thrown money at the unions — excuse me, at schools — and even helped undermine a badly needed reform of bloated union pensions. On the other hand, Candidate D has broken with the teachers’ unions, demanded that schools should have to compete for students, and endorsed the most radical federal education reform agenda ever proposed by a national candidate, including a national school choice program for all disabled students.

Candidate C is Sarah Palin. So is Candidate D.

Important disclaimer:

None of this implies anything about the overall merits of any of these candidates. One can love a candidate overall while hating his or her stand on education, and vice versa.

Obama’s Higher Education Plan: Throw Money Now, Ask Questions Later?

August 28, 2008

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The final night of the Democratic convention is here, which seems like a good time to take a look at some of Senator Obama’s education plans. Here is the major Obama higher ed proposal from BarackObama.com:

Create the American Opportunity Tax Credit: Obama will make college affordable for all Americans by creating a new American Opportunity Tax Credit. This universal and fully refundable credit will ensure that the first $4,000 of a college education is completely free for most Americans, and will cover two-thirds the cost of tuition at the average public college or university and make community college tuition completely free for most students. Obama will also ensure that the tax credit is available to families at the time of enrollment by using prior year’s tax data to deliver the credit when tuition is due.

Good politics to be sure, but a terrible idea, for a variety of reasons. At the most basic level, far and away the main beneficiary of a college education is the student-he or she knows more, usually earns more money, etc. Even if universities do provide positive externalities to society, the evidence of this is far, far weaker than that of it benefiting individuals. Many studies, for example, find no relationship between state or national economic growth and higher education spending. Ergo, a university education is a primarily a private good, not a public good.

As a society, we lavish resources on those students choosing to go to university, and ignore those who do not. Sooner or later, some bright young progressive will start to raise the equity issues involved in asking blue-collar folks to subsidize outlandishly expensive six year beer binges quests of self-discovery by rich kids.

More importantly, we now have a multi-decade long experience with public subsidies and higher education. One can only describe the higher education market as highly distorted, with costs out of control. Demand is inelastic (people think they must have a BA and will go into enormous amounts of debt to get it) and transparency is extremely poor (we literally have no way of knowing for sure whether a kid learns more at Harvard or Appalachian State).

For instance, a recent study by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute found a stunning lack of civic knowledge among our nation’s university students. Worse still, the authors found that some of the nation’s most prestigious universities had negative learning gains :

Generally, the higher U.S. News & World Report ranks a college, the lower it ranks here in civic learning. At four colleges U.S. News ranked in its top 12 (Cornell, Yale, Duke, and Princeton), seniors scored lower than freshmen. These colleges are elite centers of “negative learning.” Cornell was the third-worst performer last year and the worst this year.

Worse, much worse, is research on the reading skills of college students. American Institutes for Research (AIR) assessed the literacy of 1,800 graduating seniors from 80 randomly selected two- and four-year colleges and universities. What they found was not pretty.

The AIR study finds that 20 percent of U.S. college students completing four-year degrees have only basic quantitative literacy skills. That means they are unable to estimate if their car has enough gas to get to the next gas station or to calculate the total cost of ordering office supplies.

The study also finds that more than 50 percent of students at four-year colleges have only the most basic literacy skills, meaning they can’t do basic tasks like summarize the arguments in a newspaper editorial. On both measures, students at two-year colleges perform even worse.

The implications of this report are profound. Universities nationwide have been increasing taxpayer subsidies, tuition and fees for decades without anyone seriously questioning their return on investment.

Universities make outlandish claims about spurring economic development and leading the way to a new knowledge economy. At this point, we need to start asking if colleges are requiring students to read. To be sure, K-12 has much to answer for in this, but no one requires these universities to admit functionally illiterate students, and if they do so, they have an obligation to provide remedial education. Remedial courses of course are widespread, but apparently aren’t as widespread and/or as effective as needed.

The market does not discipline this type of failure, due to a lack of transparency. Instead, universities retain what looks to be close to unlimited pricing power. Higher education cost inflation has outstripped even that of health care inflation. Universities are much more expensive today than they were 20 years ago, but I am unaware of any evidence that they do a better job teaching students today than they did 20 years ago.

In short, we have every reason to expect, based on past experience, that if the Obama tax credit plan were to come to pass, that universities would simply hike their tuitions and continue on their merry way of ignoring quality issues in undergraduate education. The Congress has been chasing it’s own tail on “college affordability” for decades- providing more and more subsidies, watching costs go up and up, begin process again. Einstein’s definition of insanity certainly comes to mind.

Sadly, the Obama plan would simply add more fuel to the fire, and leave our very serious higher education problems unaddressed. We need to take a long hard look at higher education, not simply throw more money at the problem.

Teacher Pay: Size Isn’t the Issue

August 12, 2008

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

On NRO yesterday, David Freddoso, author of The Case Against Barack Obama, launched a broadside against Obama as a faux education reformer. I have no interest in dissecting the details of Obama’s record on education, but Freddoso’s line of attack on the subject of teacher pay seems to me to miss the point.

Freddoso begins by quoting Obama asserting that schools in a Chicago neighborhood were closing early because the district couldn’t afford to pay teachers for a full day. Freddoso notes that teachers in that neighborhood are paid an average of $83,000; more than a quarter of them make over $100,000. (These figures don’t include administrators, who make even more.) Somehow, Obama managed not to mention this when bemoaning the district’s inability to pay for a full school day.

Freddoso may well be right about what’s happening that particular district; I don’t know. However, he goes on to build a more general case that Chicago teachers citywide are making big bucks while the system destroys children’s lives, and therefore Obama’s close alliance with the Chicago teachers’ union is similar in kind to his alliances with Tony Rezko, the Chicago machine, and other practitioners of “systemic corruption.”

I certainly agree with Freddoso that the government school monopoly, in Chicago as everywhere else, consumes large quantities of taxpayer money while destroying children’s lives. I’ll also agree that the teachers’ unions bear a lot of the blame. But is the size of teacher salaries a serious problem?

Freddoso says the entry level salary for a Chicago teacher is $43,702 plus $3,059 in pension contributions. Is that really so much, considering that 1) Chicago is an urban area, where the cost of living will be high, and 2) teachers have to have a college degree and specialized training in order to enter the profession?

Freddoso goes on to note that once these starting Chicago teachers gain four years’ experience, they’ll make $60,000, not including increases for additional education credentials. Since the large majority of teachers do pursue (educationally worthless) additional credentials in order to get these “pay for paper” salary increases, it would be good to know how much those salary increases are worth in Chicago. But setting aside that question, given that the empirical evidence suggests teachers get significantly more effective in their first few years, a bump up to $60,000 doesn’t seem all that bad (remembering again that we’re in an urban area).

In short, while teachers in Chicago – like teachers nationwide – are certainly paid well, they aren’t benefitting from “systemic corruption” a la Tony Rezko or the disgraced management of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac or the “Friends of Angelo” at Countrywide, all of whom are connected to Obama.

Yet Freddoso writes about teacher pay as though being a teacher is some sort of scam. “Chicago teachers have terriffic pay and hours, and summer vacations,” and we should ask whether Obama’s link to the Chicago teachers’ union is “corrupting,” since this link is “part of a much braoder pattern that characterizes his political career, as with his backing of Chicago’s machine bosses, his sponsorship of legislation and earmarks to help such donors as Tony Rezko, and his support for special-interest subsidies in Washington.”

Freddoso is right that in addition to salary, teachers enjoy extremely strong job protection and shorter work hours, and this should be factored in when we consider whether or not they are “underpaid.” Still, it’s hardly fair to lump them in with Tony Rezko. Moreover, if the issue is not per se whether teachers are well paid, but accountability for the use of taxpayer funds (as the “corruption” meme suggests), then teachers’ job security and summer vacations don’t seem very relevant.

The real problem with teacher pay is not size, but technique. That is, it’s not primarily how much we pay, but how we pay. Teachers in the U.S. aren’t paid like professionals, they’re paid on a factory worker scale, with ability and performance totally unrelated to compensation. (Even calling this a “factory worker” scale is unfair to factory workers, since many factories have now adopted some reforms to the old pre-globalization pay system.) And it’s this pay structure, not the amount we pay, that’s the real problem. The system is designed to attract the lowest performers – since high performers can always earn more elsewhere while low performers always earn more by becoming teachers.

Freddoso mentions the subject of merit pay in passing, but only so he can assert that, on account of his alliance with the union, Obama’s merit pay plan is a toothless tiger. Whether it is or it isn’t, merit pay is a much more important issue than pay levels. If pay were tied to performance, high teacher salaries would be good – in fact, given the large role that teacher quality has been shown to play in student outcomes, if pay (and hiring) were linked to performance I would say the current pay levels would be too low.

Having said I would steer clear of evaluating his record as a whole, I will note that Obama’s openly supporting merit pay represents real progress, even if we agree with Freddoso that this support is only for show. It’s more of a show than any previous Democratic nominee has made, if I’m not mistaken (though I don’t trust my memory too far on this). Obama was actually booed by the NEA when he mentioned his views on differential pay during his speech accepting their endorsement. He didn’t have to mention teacher pay reform in his endorsement acceptance, but he did. That counts for something.

It’s also worth mentioning that the unions benefit far more than individual teachers from the direction the system has been moving in. Over the past few decades, while teacher salaries have stagnated, the number of teachers hired by the system has soared. That’s a mixed bag for teachers – it presumably means less work for each teacher, but it also exerts downard pressure on salaries. However, it puts big bucks in the unions’ pockets, with no real downside for them.

If I had to guess, I’d say Freddoso is overreacting against the widespread claim that teachers are “underpaid.” Since teachers are in fact well paid, this myth certainly does grate on anyone who knows the facts – especially so since this myth is even more obviously at odds with the facts than most education myths, and yet (or perhaps I should say “and therefore”) challenging it tends to produce an especially nasty and vicious response.

But let’s not get drawn into the opposite error. As Martin Luther is said to have said, if a man falls off his horse on the left side, the next time he rides he’ll fall off on the right side. Teachers aren’t paid too little or too much – they’re paid the wrong way. The problem here isn’t teachers, it’s unions.

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