Mike Kueber's Blog

August 30, 2014

Should all kids go to college?

Filed under: Education — Mike Kueber @ 4:37 pm
Tags: ,

I was reading a book recently about whether all kids should go to college. According to the book, this question had become an issue in the latest presidential campaign, with Republican VP candidate Paul Ryan apparently taking the position that only the liberal elites thought everyone should go to college, while broad-minded Republicans understood that success could be achieved in life without a college degree.

I wasn’t aware that this question had become an issue in the presidential campaign, but it has always been important to me. When I was parenting four young boys, I recall frequently pontificating that, although I wasn’t planning to push my sons toward college, I would be mightily disappointed if any of them didn’t want a college education.

Many years later – mission mostly accomplished. As with most kids of the upper-middle class, my kids graduated from high school and just assumed that they would go to college. Three of them have already graduated (two of them have graduate degrees, too) and the fourth is in his third year.

But how does this jibe with Paul Ryan’s suggestion that it is elitist to expect all kids to go to college?

As with most thought-provoking questions, my first reaction is to conduct some internet research. When I googled, “Should all kids go to college,” I was referred to an article by Dana Goldstein in The Nation titled, “Should all kids go to college?”

According to the 2011 article, the question is commonly phrased as follows:

  • Do poor and working-class kids have the same need for a liberal arts education as their middle-class and affluent peers? Or does the reality of inequality in America—the sheer unlikeliness of climbing from poverty into the intelligentsia within a single generation—call for a more practical approach to educating the poor, with a focus on technical skills that prepare a child for the world of work?

I think that framing the question this way, much like Paul Ryan did, forces a person to take a practical perspective. By contrast, my pontificating is more of an aspirational perspective – i.e., all parents should try to raise kids who want an education beyond high school, even if the kids don’t eventually plan to have a job that requires a college degree.

College is not the same thing as a trade school that is supposed to prepare you to get a job and make a lot of money. College should jumpstart you on a satisfying and fulfilling lifelong journey, and that is something we want for all of our kids.

August 28, 2014

Bad luck and life skills

Filed under: Education — Mike Kueber @ 6:48 pm

Earlier this week, I went to my second funeral in two weeks. You might think that funerals get more common as a person ages, but these weren’t funerals for contemporaries. Rather, they were for kids.

The first funeral was for a 15-year-old boy who died when he hit his head on the bottom of my apartment pool. What horrible bad luck! Although diving is prohibited in our pool, people do it all the time, and I have never known anyone to hit their head on the bottom. But even more bad luck is the fact that no one noticed him on the bottom of the pool for several minutes. The incident reminds me of the young Irish boy Sean dying in Lonesome Dove because a fluky incident with some water moccasins. Gus McCrae’s words of wisdom – “He was an unlucky young sprout,” and later, “Life is short. Shorter for some than for others.”

The second funeral was for a 28-year-old young man who was one of my son Tommy’s best friends since high school. Tommy told me that the kid took his own life, and during the memorial service, there were a couple of mentions of depression. Following the service, Tommy told me the young man was having some financial problems since realizing that he couldn’t make a living in music. Plus, there was a problematic girlfriend.

I was not surprised to learn that there were financial and relationship issues behind this depression. In fact, more than two years ago, I wrote the following to a friend who is on the Texas Board of Education:

  • I suspect that there already are classes to help kids make intelligent financial decisions.  If there aren’t, there should be.  I would be surprised, however, if there are classes to help kids in making relationship decisions, and I can’t think of anything that would improve their lives and help them avoid mistakes more than a class on developing and maintaining good relationships and avoiding or ending toxic onesOne of the goals of a high school education should be to prepare our kids for a productive and satisfying life. And making good decisions, especially concerning money and personal relationships could serve as a cornerstone.”

Reminds me of the folk song, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.”  RIP, Brandon.

July 6, 2014

Bill Powers

Filed under: Education,Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 12:43 am

Bill Powers came to UT Law School while I was attending the school – 1977. My recollection of him was a charming young guy and that reputation has persisted to this day while he serves as president of UT Austin. He reminds me of President Obama. But there was an article in today’s SA Express-News indicating that he has been asked to quit or be fired from his job. Why?

According to news reports, Powers is in trouble ostensibly for complicity in securing preferential admissions treatment for students of influential people – specifically, by forwarding preference-seeking letters (without comment) to admissions personnel and by falsely advising the influential people that he would keep an eye on the handling of their student’s review by admissions personnel.

In Texas, this sort of influence peddling is usually tolerated. So the real questions are which powers want Powers out and why.

May 8, 2014

David Brooks and a philosophy of life

Filed under: Education,Philosophy — Mike Kueber @ 5:43 pm

I recently blogged about NY Times columnists David Brooks and Thomas Friedman locking horns, or was it crossing swords, over the role of a college education, with Brooks in favor of a broad liberal education and Friedman in favor of job training.  Brooks has now drafted a related column that suggests Friedman is winning the war.

Brooks’s new column is based on an annual UCLA survey of college freshman.  According to the survey, 42% of the college freshmen in 1966 felt that being financially well-off was an essential or very important life goal, and this number had increased to 75% by 2005.   By contrast, 86% of the freshmen in 1966 felt that developing a meaningful philosophy of life was essential or very important, while less than 50% feel that way today.

Not surprisingly, this increasingly materialistic attitude is taking a toll on our youth.  Whereas in 1985 only 18% of the freshmen felt overwhelmed, today that number has increased to 33%.

I am hopeful, however, that eventually our youth will see the light, adjust their attitude, and rearrange their priorities.

Incidentally, the survey reveals an astonishing amount of grade inflation since I was in high school.  Today more than half of the high-school kids have GPAs of A or A-.  By contrast, in 1966 only 19% did.  Based on my experience, that grade inflation applies to colleges, too, because my college required only a 3.2 GPA to graduate cum laude, whereas one of my son needed a 3.5 GPA to graduate cum laude from UTSA.

May 3, 2014

Bragging on your kids

Filed under: Culture,Education,Philosophy — Mike Kueber @ 7:09 pm

Recently one of my Facebook friends posted – “I don’t brag often but when I do it’s about my kids!”  Past experience has taught me to tread carefully when dealing with a Palin-esque mama grizzly on Facebook (one unfriended my when I challenged her brag that single mothers had raised the past two Democratic presidents), but I decided to assume that this friend was not merely fishing for compliments.  The first three comments had already encouraged my friend to keep on bragging when I offered the following contrary mindset:

  • I’m not sure when that became popular; when I was growing up, that was considered undignified.”

Several hours later, my friend “liked” my comment, but this morning I woke up to a short response – “[frown] Mike.”  This response prompted me to dig a little deeper into the internet before responding as follows:

  • I’m obviously outnumbered and probably outdated, but when I googled, ‘Is it good to brag about your kids,’ the first few entries, including WebMD and Parenting, consistently opined that it was a bad idea.”

The WebMD article, titled “Dealing With Bragging Parents,” was especially informative:

  • All this child-centered bragging, despite its patent violation of the social ideals of modesty and respect for others, may be, says University of Pennsylvania sociologist Annette Lareau, PhD, an outgrowth of the hothouse style of parenting that pervades our culture. Lareau, who has studied the habits and behaviors of contemporary families, calls this approach “concerted cultivation.” She says it’s a way middle-class parents tend to see “parenting as a project,” something to be managed and organized and programmed. “There’s a way in which an activity is more intense for the mother than it is even for the child,” says Lareau. “And the competitive nature of activities is woven into the heart of the process.”
  • Focus on Child, Not Accomplishments. That’s why, says psychiatrist Alvin Rosenfeld, MD, co-author of The Over-Scheduled Child: Avoiding the Hyper-Parenting Trap, it’s important to concentrate on the whole child. “Many focus on their children’s achievements, rather than getting to know their kids as individuals,” says Rosenfeld. “The dilemma is when kids become valued only for their accomplishments — or when they live up to your fantasies of what they ought to accomplish — not for who they are as people.”


  1. Model the behavior you want your kids to develop. “If they see and hear you bragging, that’s the behavior they’ll emulate,” says Alvin Rosenfeld, MD.
  2. Remember the basics of social etiquette. Don’t be a braggart. Remember also that you don’t know about other family’s struggles and challenges. The parent you’re telling about your child’s athletic accomplishments, for example, may have a child with a physical disability.
  3. Focus on who your children are as people rather than their latest test score. “We rarely hear the simple praise, ‘He is such a good (or good-hearted) kid,'” says Rosenfeld.
  4. Restrict talk about your child’s successes and talents to the child’s other parent, grandparents, and aunts and uncles. Just like you, these people know your child is the smartest, bravest, best child on earth.

(Incidentally, a different website defines hot-house parenting as “Deadly Parenting Style 2: Incubator ‘Hothouse’ Parenting – Pushing your kids into learning earlier than appropriate for their cognitive age and developmental level.”)

My Facebook friend has not further responded, but I’m glad that she prompted me to look a little deeper and I hope she is doing the same.

May 2, 2014

Brooks and Friedman cross swords

Filed under: Culture,Education,Philosophy — Mike Kueber @ 8:55 pm
Tags: ,

Columnist David Brooks of the NY Times, a so-called thoughtful conservative, is my favorite columnist, along with Charles Krauthammer of the Washington Post.  Brooks authored a column this week titled Love Story that exemplifies why I am a fan of his.

Love Story describes a one-night, wartime encounter in 1945 between Isaiah Berlin and Anna Akhmatova.  During an all-night conversation-cum-encounter, they went from discussing their personal histories to sharing their philosophical leanings to finally revealing their innermost feelings – i.e., “baring their souls….  That night, Berlin’s life came as close as it ever did to the still perfection of art.”

The Berlin/Akhmatova encounter reminds me much of the one I described in a blogpost concerning Michael Novak and Gabriel Marcel:

  • The first night that Novak met Marcel, the philosopher generously spent much of the evening talking to Novak and even read to him extensively from a favorite play, The Funeral Pyre. At the end of the evening, Marcel said to Novak – ‘Tonight, I think we had an encounter. I think so. Don’t you?’”

The blogpost also quoted Novak on Marcel’s philosophy regarding such encounters:

  • Marcel brought new light to daily experiences, such as recognizing the ‘presence’ of other persons and ‘encounter’ with another person – in other words, not just a passing, inattentive moment with another human being, but something more. He drew attention to the difference between sitting between two people on the subway for an hour – treating them without recognition or interest or attention – and the act of having a memorable exchange of personal qualities.”

In his column, David Brooks suggests that this sort of encounter is less likely in current times:

  • Today we live in a utilitarian moment. We’re surrounded by data and fast-flowing information. ‘Our reason has become an instrumental reason,’ as Leon Wieseltier once put it, to be used to solve practical problems.”
  • “The night Berlin and Akhmatova spent together stands as the beau ideal of a different sort of communication. It’s communication between people who think that the knowledge most worth attending to is not found in data but in the great works of culture, in humanity’s inherited storehouse of moral, emotional and existential wisdom.”
  • “Berlin and Akhmatova were from a culture that assumed that, if you want to live a decent life, you have to possess a certain intellectual scope. You have to grapple with the big ideas and the big books that teach you how to experience life in all its richness and make subtle moral and emotional judgments.”
  • “Berlin and Akhmatova could experience that sort of life-altering conversation because they had done the reading. They were spiritually ambitious. They had the common language of literature, written by geniuses who understand us better than we understand ourselves.”

Coincidentally, another New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, recently seemed to write in favor of the “utilitarian moment” and against “people who think that the knowledge most worth attending to is not found in data but in the great works of culture, in humanity’s inherited storehouse of moral, emotional and existential wisdom.”  Friedman’s column, titled “How to Get a Job at Google” and relying heavily on an interview with a Google HR person, suggests that “the No. 1 thing we look for general cognitive ability, and it’s not I.Q. It’s learning ability. It’s the ability to process on the fly. It’s the ability to pull together disparate bits of information.

So, what is the best indicator of cognitive ability?  A follow-up Friedman column, titled “How to Get a Job at Google, Part 2,” again based on an interview with the Google HR guy, revealed the following:

  • Of course, we want an informed citizenry, where everyone has a baseline of knowledge from which to build skills. That is a social good. But, he added, don’t just go to college because you think it is the right thing to do and that any bachelor’s degree will suffice.” (I love it when someone starts a sentence with a noble statement before getting to the “but.”)
  • Once there, said Bock, make sure that you’re getting out of it not only a broadening of your knowledge but skills that will be valued in today’s workplace. Your college degree is not a proxy anymore for having the skills or traits to do any job.” (I.e., college as a training school.)
  • What are those skills or traits? One is grit, he said. Shuffling through résumés of some of Google’s 100 hires that week, Bock explained: ‘I was on campus speaking to a student who was a computer science and math double major, who was thinking of shifting to an economics major because the computer science courses were too difficult. I told that student they are much better off being a B student in computer science than an A+ student in English because it signals a rigor in your thinking and a more challenging course load. That student will be one of our interns this summer  (Friedman and Google obviously have a low opinion of English, the humanities, and the social sciences, where an A+ does not necessarily reflect any cognitive ability, but a B in computer science does.)

I believe that the primary function of college is not to prepare its students for a Google interview, but rather, as Brooks suggests, to prepare them to “grapple with the big ideas and the big books that teach you how to experience life in all its richness and make subtle moral and emotional judgments.”

I think Brooks has got this one right.

April 21, 2014

The Common Core comes under attack as a wedge issue

Filed under: Education,Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 9:21 pm

A recent article in the NY Times revealed how the Democrats and Republicans in Washington tend to gravitate toward contrary positions on most issues. The result of this tendency, especially in an era of stalemates, is that nothing gets done even when the parties are in fundamental agreement on an issue.

The example that the Times article focuses on is called the Common Core:

  • “A once little-known set of national educational standards introduced in 44 states and the District of Columbia with the overwhelming support of Republican governors, the Common Core has incited intense resistance on the right and prompted some in the party to reverse field and join colleagues who believe it will lead to a federal takeover of schools.”
  • “The learning benchmarks, intended to raise students’ proficiency in math and English, were adopted as part of a 2010 effort by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers to bolster the country’s competitiveness. Some conservatives, in an echo of their criticism of the health care law, say the standards are an overreach by the federal government.”

A liberal friend posted the article on Facebook and made the following comment:

  • Why do we keep looking for wedge issues? When are we going to start looking for issues to come together with? BTW, this applies to both sides, not just the right. More hashtag politics here.”

I think my friend misused the term “wedge issues.” Google defines it as a divisive political issue, esp. one that is raised by a candidate for public office in hopes of attracting or alienating an opponent’s supporters. Most often, wedge issues are things like same-sex marriage, stem-cell research, illegal immigration, or gun ownership. They are intended to distract from other more important issues. By contrast, the NY Times article examines why political parties attempt to create divisiveness where none exists. Because that doesn’t make sense to me, I commented to my friend my essential agreement:

  • I was initially disappointed to see Jeb [Bush] associated with this policy shift, but later was happy to read that he remains committed to education reform. Although Obama’s actions prompted the conservative shift of Rubio, Rand, and Cruz, they remind me of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.”

April 2, 2014

More on PISA

Filed under: Education — Mike Kueber @ 10:26 pm
Tags: ,

A few weeks ago, I blogged about a book by Amanda Ripley titled The Smartest Kids in the World. In the book, Ripley described her study of why the kids in certain countries – Poland, South Korea, and Finland – appeared to be much better educated than American kids.

Ripley selected these countries based on their PISA scores.  PISA (Program for International Students Assessment) is a test of critical-thinking skills (not curriculum-centered knowledge) that translates fairly from one country to the next. The PISA results, as do many other test results, show American students to be mediocre in science and math and fairly strong in reading. But the PISA rankings are dominated by Finland, South Korea, and fast rising Poland.

A few days later, I blogged more specifically about the PISA and concluded by warning that, while the test was promising, the prospects for American achievement were not:

  • This 61-question test is so fascinating because it is directed toward the ability to use your education in a practical manner, your ability to engage effectively in the modern world. When people can use their critical thinking, our need for a nanny government is diminished. That is why Ripley and I are both worried for America.

Well, an article earlier this week in the NY Times suggests that maybe I was too pessimistic. According to the article, the PISA was expanded in 2012 to test not only reading, math, and science, but also problem-solving skills. And problem-solving appears to be an American forte:

  • The American students who took the problem-solving tests in 2012, the first time they were administered, did better on these exams than on reading, math and science tests, suggesting that students in the United States are better able to apply knowledge to real-life situations than perform straightforward academic tasks.”

The article went to great lengths to congratulate America on its problem-solving success:

  • The types of tasks that appeared on the problem-solving tests asked students to demonstrate practical thinking. At a basic level, for example, students might be asked to identify the cheapest lines of furniture in a catalog showing different brands. At a more advanced level, students could be asked to develop a process for figuring out why a particular electronic device was not working properly. American students were best at what the test writers described as ‘interactive’ tasks, in which students were asked to discover some of the information needed to solve the problem. ‘This suggests that students in the United States are open to novelty, tolerate doubt and uncertainty, and dare to use intuition to initiate a solution,’ the O.E.C.D. said in a statement.”

But the article also noted that, although American kids seemed especially skilled at problem-solving, they were not leading the pack:

  • Fifteen-year-olds in the United States scored above the average of those in the developed world on exams assessing problem-solving skills, but they trailed several countries in Asia and Europe as well as Canada, according to international standardized tests results released on Tuesday…. including Singapore, South Korea, Japan, several provinces of China, Canada, Australia, Finland and Britain all outperformed American students.”

I choose to see the glass as half full and look on this performance as something of a success that we can build on.

March 23, 2014

Sunday Book Review #129 – Changing Texas

Filed under: Culture,Economics,Education,Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 9:32 pm
Tags: ,

Changing Texas is a demographic analysis of Texas projected out to 2050 conducted by a team led by the state’s former demographer, Steve Murdock.  In the introduction, Murdock claims that his objective is to present the demographic facts and not to prescribe intelligent public policy, but the book is subtitled “Implications of Addressing or Ignoring the Texas Challenge.”  From that subtitle, you should not be surprised that Murdock strongly implies what needs to be done.

Although this book is new (2014), Murdock’s opinions are not.  A few years ago, I heard him speak at a state-bar seminar and blogged about him.   Then about a year ago, there was a lengthy newspaper article that prompted me to do another blogpost, this one titled, “Is government responsible for ensuring that the education gap between Asian/Anglos and Blacks/Hispanics is narrowed?”

Murdock’s spiel, this time spread over 234 pages and more than 100 charts, is essentially the same as described in my previous posts – i.e., (a) Hispanics are ascendant and Anglos are a dying breed in Texas (only 21% of the state will be Anglo by 2050), and (b) Hispanics have not and will not accumulate capital (financial or educational).  The obvious result of this demographic trend is that the Texas economy will decline precipitously.

The public-policy correction, which Murdock promised not to make, is for government to somehow motivate/encourage/incentivize Blacks/Hispanics to accumulate capital.  A solution that he didn’t suggest was to motivate/encourage/incentivize Anglos to have more kids.  (Apparently, Anglo females for more than two decades have been having kids at less than the replacement rate of 2.1.)

As I noted in my previous blog, I don’t think this problem requires a race-based solution.  Not all Blacks/Hispanics are capital-poor and not all Anglos/Asians are resource rich.  Government should motivate/encourage/incentivize all resource-poor people, whether Black, White, or Brown, to accumulate capital – both financial and educational.

February 10, 2014

Program for International Students Assessment (PISA)

Filed under: Education — Mike Kueber @ 5:23 pm

While writing about Amanda Ripley’s book on education policy, I said the following about a test called Program for International Student Assessment:

  • Ripley’s principal means of analysis is an international test – Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) – that is given every three years to 15-year olds in 70 countries.  It measures reading, science, and math skills.  Because PISA is designed to test critical-thinking skills (not curriculum-centered knowledge) in a way that translates fairly from one country to the next, the results are highly relevant not only to showing progress over a time period, but also to showing success relative to other countries.

PISA self-describes its test a bit more eloquently:

  • PISA is unique because it develops tests which are not directly linked to the school curriculum. The tests are designed to assess to what extent students at the end of compulsory education, can apply their knowledge to real-life situations and be equipped for full participation in society.

In her book, Ripley is able to provide a vivid description because PISA allowed her to actually take the exam.  In the two examples that she provides:

  1. A graph shows that robberies from one year to the next have gone from 507 to 515.  The change seems to be magnified because the graph starts at 500 and goes up to 525.  Based on the graph, a reporter concludes that there was a huge increase in robberies.  The question is whether the reporter reasonably interpreted the information.
  2. A Human Resources flyer is shown.  The creator of the flyer had been instructed to design it to be friendly and encouraging.   The question is, after considering layout, style of writing, pictures and graphics, did the creator of the flyer succeed.

Ripley also mentioned there were questions relating to understanding the fine print of a health insurance policy and comparing fees for checking accounts.

The PISA website also provides some examples.  I successfully completed a few, including the following two:

  1. A revolving door includes three wings which rotate within a circular-shaped space.  The door makes 4 complete rotations in a minute. There is room for a maximum of two people in each of the three door sectors.  What is the maximum number of people that can enter the building through the door in 30 minutes?
  2. The Gotemba walking trail up Mount Fuji is about 9 kilometres (km) long. Walkers need to return from the 18 km walk by 8 pm. Toshi estimates that he can walk up the mountain at 1.5 kilometres per hour on average, and down at twice that speed. These speeds take into account meal breaks and rest times. Using Toshi’s estimated speeds, what is the latest time he can begin his walk so that he can return by 8 pm?

I was pretty quickly able to get to the correct answers (720 and 11 am), but was disappointed to learn that far fewer than half of the test-takers worldwide got the first answer correct and fewer than 20% got the second answer correct.  My sentiments mirrored Ripley’s:

  • After I left the building, my sense of relief faded.  My score (she missed only one question), I realized, did not bode well for teenagers in my own country.  This test was not easy, but it wasn’t hard, either.  On one question that I’d gotten right, only 18% of American fifteen-year-olds were with me.  There were other questions like that, which many or most of the Finns and the Koreans were getting right, just as I was, but most young Americans were getting wrong.

This 61-question test is so fascinating because it is directed toward the ability to use your education in a practical manner, your ability to engage effectively in the modern world.  When people can use their critical thinking, our need for a nanny government is diminished.  That is why Ripley and I are both worried for America.


« Previous PageNext Page »