Saturday, June 23, 2007

Better pay for better teachers

Think about the worst teachers you know: the ones who haven't updated their lesson plans since the 1980s, or who let the kids watch movies every day to avoid having to work. Well Charles Hasse, President of the Washington Teachers Association wants them to get 50% more pay. And he doesn't want a dollar more to go to the teachers who really do work hard. "Don't even talk about merit pay until we get across-the-board wage hikes" seems to be the Washington teachers' response to the nationwide trend toward performance pay for teachers,discussed this week in the New York Times.

At least, that was my takeaway from the podcast interview I heard him give on KUOW's Conversation a few days ago and discussed on the Save Seattle Schools blog.

The union leaders interviewed are justifiably proud of their long service as teachers, but I wonder if any of them has ever worked in an organization where pay is tied to performance. Every single one of their concerns is equally valid at any competitive company or organization, but ultimately merit pay works:

  • There is no good way to measure performance. Performance bonuses at companies are just as hard to hand out: do you give a bigger bonus to the salesperson who happened to close the deal or to the guy in the back office whose tireless effort made the deal possible? We all know that some teachers are way better than others, and even the teachers themselves can tell you which ones are which. Companies have to figure this out all the time--why can't schools?
  • Merit pay will go to those who kiss up to the boss. You think that never happens at, say, Microsoft? But guess what, the boss is being measured too--by performance--and those administrators who stupidly dish out rewards to their cronies without regard to performance will eventually find their own jobs in jeopardy.

It's ironic that we grade everyone in the school system (administrators, students, parents) , but somehow the "M-word" is inappropriate when we mention teachers.

Look at this list of salaries of Mercer Island teachers. See anything out of line? It's sad that this is public information only because the money we give to teachers --the most important component of a successful school--takes no account of how good they are or how hard they work.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Sinodendron Rugosum

Sinodendron Rugosum
Originally uploaded by sprague
One of the most unusual bugs in America has its home right here on Mercer Island. Commonly known as the Rugose Stag Beetle, it breeds in dead trees, like those that fell from last December's wind storm. My 7-year-old boy found this one in our back yard.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Prius-powered house

PG&E is showing off something I tried doing during our big power failure last December:  use my Prius as a cheap generator for the house. There is at least one web site showing how to do it yourself.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Defend your online reputation

When your name is Googled, do people get an accurate picture? or is there some pesky item in your past that you'd like to see go away?  The WSJ has a nice overview of ReputationDefenders, a small company devoted to helping clients undo negative Internet postings.  Starting at $10/month and about $30/post you want eliminated, they'll help you clean up your online reputation.

Chris Dellarocas, a University of Maryland associate professor who studies how reputations are built online, said the services are fighting a growing trend of sites that let users recommend, rank and opine on other people, from RateMyProfessor to Rapleaf, a site for people to rate each other after business transactions.

Rather than fight negative postings, I think it's far more effective to get positive postings added to your online reputation.  Controlling what the internet says about you is far more effective, I think, than reacting later when other people post something you dont' like.  Another service, DefendMyName, claims that for $1K/month they'll do that.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

How much profit do small businesses earn?

New York magazine puts a few economists on the trail of various small businesses in Manhattan to identify their business models and see exactly how much money they make.

  • A private school earns a 10% profit on revenues, with about 54% of its revenue spent on salaries.
  • Cab drivers make only about $12K profit per year.
  • Discount stores (like Jacks 99 cent stores, or presumably like the Japanese dollar store in Seattle) earns $7M profit on $30M revenue for three stores.  Their costs are low because they procure goods that are essentially dumped on them for pennies by manufacturers who need to get rid of stuff.
  • Good sushi restaurant in a good location, serving 250 meals per day, earns $8.5M, of which $1.7M is profit. Most restaurants (like small pizzarias) make about 10% profit.
  • Yoga studios make $77K, with $24K in losses, so most are out of business within three years.  If you're an instructor thinking of starting a studio, it's much better to do private lessons instead.

Some other rules for starting a small business:  rent for a bar should be no more than your Friday night take and a restaurant's should be about one week's revenue.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

How to eat sushi

My brother-in-law sent me this 10-minute introduction to the correct way to eat sushi: 

Note especially the advice on how much of a soy sauce lake to use: "until sushi is noticably heavier".



Waiting for kindergarten

The New York Times Magazine has a long survey about the practice of "redshirting", waiting an extra year to enroll children (usually boys) in Kindergarten. The article is mostly sympathetic to the idea, pointing out that many states are considering legislation to delay the cutoff date when kids must go to school.  Some takeaways:

  • Cutoff dates range from Indiana (July 1) to  Connecticut (January 1).
  • "Delayed-entry" children make up 6-9% of all kindergartners, a ratio that has stayed constant since records started in the 1980s.
  • Finland children don't start kindegarten until age 7.
  • In wealthy communities, the ratio is much higher: 25% in Los Altos, California for example.
  • What do the studies show?
    • A 2002 review by Deborah Stipek at Stanford found more behavior problems and few learning advantages for delayed kids.
    • Labor economists think "relative age" is more important than absolute age.  A June 2005 study in Journal of Sport Sciences (and cited frequently by Freakonomics) found a disproportionate number of pro soccer players born in Jan-March.
    • The biggest study is by Kelly Bedard, a labor economist at UC Santa Barbara:  Nov 2006 “The Persistence of Early Childhood Maturity: International Evidence of Long-Run Age Effects” in The Quarterly Journal of Economics. Of 250K students in 19 countries, it found a 2-11% advantage for kids who are older relative to their peers.
  • Note that private schools generally have later cut-offs than public schools, a hint that competition forces schools to encourage later admission.

Bottom line: sending kids to kindergarten early seems to help disadvantaged kids by pushing them into a more professional and structured environment than they have at home, but in healthy families and communities it's better to have your kid be the oldest than the youngest in a class.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Best Acupuncture

Thankfully, in spite of my poor posture and otherwise lack of concern for my musculo-skeletal system, I do not suffer from any out-of-the-ordinary back pain or neck pain or other things that might benefit from a chiropractor or serious orthopedic doctor.  But several people I respect recommend Dr. Chen: 425-442-7297.

Also see this web site.