J.D. Moyer

sci-fi writer, beat maker, self-experimenter

Month: October 2013

Why I’m Sending My Child to an Underperforming Public School

Emerson Elementary class portrait 1916

Emerson Elementary class portrait 1916

I live in a middle-class neighborhood (Temescal) in Oakland, California. I’m lucky enough to live very near two elementary schools. Park Day School is a private school, with tuition costs of roughly $20K/year. As far as I can tell Park Day is an excellent school, and some of my friends are sending their kids there. The other nearby elementary school is Emerson Elementary. That’s where my daughter goes, despite the fact that average test scores are quite low.

Why did my wife and I choose to send our daughter to Emerson? The obvious reasons apply. We support public schools, who accept all children from the community, instead of picking and choosing the easy and/or bright kids (the rambunctious son of an acquaintance of ours was rejected from Park Day’s kindergarten for “behavioral issues”). I don’t think that sending your kid to private school makes you a bad person, but I do feel like I’m doing the right thing by my community. It’s also nice to save the money on tuition.

But the main reason I’m writing this post is to explain why I think my daughter will get a better education at Emerson, despite the low average test scores, some students with behavioral problems, and tight budgets.

Great Teachers

Kia (my wife) decided to become active in the Emerson PTO (Parent Teacher Organization) a couple years before our daughter enrolled there. She made the commitment to get to know the school, and to do what she could to make the school better before our daughter started there (fund-raising for art and music programs, improving school grounds, increasing parental involvement, etc.). She was able to get to know many of the teachers, and observe them in the classroom. At least for kindergarten and the lower grades, the teaching quality at Emerson is so high that we did not even bother to submit a classroom preference when we enrolled. Both kindergarten teachers, Ms. Campos and Ms. Aiello, are excellent.

High-quality “value added” teaching (meaning that the teachers positively influence test scores) in primary school can have positive economic and social effects that reach into a young person’s twenties and beyond. Here’s a nytimes article that discusses the same study.

I’ve heard nothing but good things about the teachers over at Park Day, but if all other things are equal, I’ll choose the public school. Sending your kid to private school undercuts the public school system, depriving public schools of state funds. Sometimes there’s a good reason to do this, but in this case teaching quality isn’t an issue.

Of course, all things are NOT equal. Park Day has more money, and a carefully selected student body. Overall, the private school receives more kindergarteners who are better prepared, have a head start on their education, are better behaved (the most difficult kids are not accepted into the school), and on average come from homes with all kinds of economic and social advantages. So let’s get into that.

Test Scores Are Not Contagious, and the Benefits of Being a High Rank Student

Emerson gets some disadvantaged kids. 63% of the students are eligible for the free or reduced-price lunch program. A stable two-parent family is the exception, not the rule. Many of the kids didn’t attend preschool before starting at Emerson. Predictably, many of these children do not excel academically in elementary school, despite the best efforts of their skilled and motivated teachers.

My own daughter comes in with some advantages, including a great preschool experience, a culture of literacy at home, a stable family life, good nutrition, etc. She is not going to suddenly lose these advantages by having classmates who don’t share them. This seems to be the biggest mental disconnect of parents who obsess over standardized test score averages while school shopping. Your child’s academic performance is going to be influenced by their readiness, their innate ability, the quality of the teaching, and additional support and instruction they receive at home. Having classmates who are economically and/or socially disadvantaged (and thus possibly behind academically) is not going to bring your child down.

In fact, the opposite may occur. There is an academic benefit to being a high-ranked student that is just as strong as having a good teacher. In other words, being a “big fish in a small pond” can have an enormous positive influence on your child’s confidence, which can impel them to study harder and achieve even more.

I’m not making this up. High achieving students do better in worse schools (especially boys, and more competitive students).

Around 2009-2010, Oakland parents started enrolling their children in school later, so that their kids would be the oldest in the class. They did this en masse, so much so that our preschool had to add a classroom to accept all the redshirted laggards. Why did they do this? All because of a chapter in Malcom Gladwell’s book Outliers that described how almost all professional hockey players are born in January or February (the oldest kids in the class are bigger, get the most time on the ice, get more practice and acquire skills more quickly, and maintain that advantage until the pros). Never mind that this advantage doesn’t translate to other sports (like basketball) or academics (the younger kids in a class tend to do better by the time they’re in high school). Middle-class Oakland parents are trendy and want every advantage for their child. [Edit: To be clear, I include myself in this category! Our daughter was not near the age limit but we might have easily made the same decision at the time.]

Now that Gladwell has gotten behind the “big fish in a little pond” theory of success, I wonder if we’ll see trendy Oakland parents flocking to the lowest-performing schools. 😉

Diverse Social Interactions, and a Diverse Worldview

Our daughter went to Temple Sinai Preschool in Oakland, and overall had a great experience there. The only thing that bothered me about that school was that it was overwhelmingly white. It’s a Jewish preschool, so to some extent that was to be expected, but my daughter was starting to exhibit some disturbing stereotypes about African-Americans that really bothered me. Once, at around age 3, she pointed to a picture of a middle-class African-American couple in a magazine and asked “Are they homeless?” Homeless people in Oakland? Check. Mostly African-American? Check. Lack of social exposure to African-Americans in general to balance her worldview? Check. No wonder she said that. The last item I could actually do something about.

Emerson is currently 58% African-American students (the remaining 42% being Hispanic, white, Asian, and multi-ethnic kids). A couple months into the school year, and I’m relieved to see that my daughter has friends of all skin shades. At this point she has fewer racial hang-ups than I do.

As an aside, when Kia told other parents at our preschool that our daughter was going to Emerson, she encountered in several cases an attitude that could only be described as “fear of blackness” (if not outright racism). While I understand the impulse of a parent to not want their child to be culturally isolated, Emerson is a diverse school, especially in the lower grades. It looks a lot like Oakland. To me, that’s ideal.

Of course, diversity is not just about black and white. 20% of of Emerson students are classified as “English language learners.” Check out the breakdown of languages spoken in the homes of these students:

Languages spoken in the homes of "English language learners" at Emerson

Languages spoken in the homes of “English language learners” at Emerson

There’s some American melting pot for you. Once again, I see this kind of cultural diversity as a clear benefit. My daughter will have direct experience at a young age that 1) English is not the only language in the world, and 2) there are other cultures worth learning about.


Sending your kid to any school is really an experiment. I’m not making a 100% no-matter-what commitment to Emerson, or to public school in general. We’ll have to see how it goes. And as for our friends who have chosen private school for their kids, I respect those decisions. Each kid is different and has different needs. All a parent can do is to try to make a good choice, and then observe closely and adjust course as needed. Here’s what I’ve observed so far at Emerson:

  • my daughter likes to go to school, at least on most days
  • academically she is progressing very quickly, learning to read and write and do simple math problems
  • in addition to basic academics, good programs exist for art, music, and poetry
  • parental involvement is high
  • teaching quality is high
  • the school is being led well by principal Kathy Hatzke
  • teaching and admin staff are open to ideas and suggestions for how to more effectively educate our children (especially if backed by empirical research); they are not “set in their ways” but rather are hungry for progress and improvement and creating better systems

On the downside, some of the kids definitely have some behavioral issues, primarily around poor concentration and emotional control/anger management. But these same kids are sweet and good-natured most of time, and still have tons of potential even if the odds are stacked against them. Their parents and teachers haven’t given up on them, and neither have other adults in the community (myself included). Ultimately you have to ask yourself (if you are a parent considering sending your child to a public school with poor test scores): why are the scores bad? Is it bad teaching, or is the school taking on the hardest kids, with the fewest social and economic advantages? If it’s the latter case, and the school has other good things going for it, there’s no good reason to fear sending your child there.

Album Giveaway – From There To Here Volume 1

Free album download on looq.com

Free album download on looq.com

We’re giving away a free ambient/downtempo compilation on looq.com. The only catch is that we’re asking for your email address, but if you want to download the music and then immediately unsubscribe, no hard feelings. If you stay on the Loöq Records mailing list, you’ll receive a short email about once a month linking to our newest release (mostly progressive house, deep house, breakbeat, downtempo, and ambient), and links to free music downloads several times a year.

From There To Here Volume 1 (initially released in 2011) was our first attempt at an ambient/downtempo compilation. We’re following up with Volume 2 in about a month. Volume 1 features music from Methodrone, Kleidosty, Reef Project, Jondi & Spesh, and Momu.

Feel free to comment on what you think about the music, or about other groups/projects in similar genres.

Color Me Crazy – Artificial (Coal Tar) Dyes and Your Child's Mental Health

Delicious, colorful, neurotoxic?

Delicious, colorful, neurotoxic?

Until recently, I didn’t take the health claims regarding artificial dyes in food very seriously. I don’t eat candy very often, but when I do, M&M’s are towards the top of the list. Eating unnaturally brightly-colored food is fun!

But over the last few months, my wife noticed a correlation between our daughter eating artificially-colored candy and having complete emotional meltdowns (tantrums, screaming and hitting, etc.). At first I was a little skeptical of this correlation; I suspected lack of sleep as a more obvious and likely factor (or the sugar in candy, as opposed to the artificial dyes). But it did prompt me to look into the research behind the claims.

After doing some reading, I’m now convinced that allowing your child to eat artificial dyes is about as responsible as serving them a gin & tonic. And then lighting their cigarette.

The History

Rachel Hennessey has a good article on Forbes.com that covers the history of artificial color in food. A few points from her article:

  • the earliest food colorings, from natural sources, contained toxic amounts of mercury and arsenic
  • in the early 1900’s synthetic colors were created from coal tar, to replace the natural toxic ones
  • over the next century the vast majority of these synthetic colors were banned by the FDA because of health concerns, leaving only seven still legal for use in food

Of the remaining seven legal artificial food colorings, there is a great deal of research linking their use to behavioral problems, DNA damage, reproductive problems, psychotoxicity, immunosuppression, metabolic acidosis, and a host of other serious problems.

Here’s a summary of the research.

Here’s another research summary, in chronological format, focusing on behavior/ADHD.

Corporations that produce products that use artificial colors would like you to believe that this research is “controversial.” But it looks fairly straightforward to me. There is enough evidence pointing at artificial colors as a cause of behavioral problems and other health issues that I’m going to stop eating the stuff altogether. And I’m not going to allow my daughter to eat artificial colors on a regular basis. (I don’t have any illusions about controlling my kid’s diet 100%, but I am ready to start sharing my views with other parents, and requesting that treats at birthday parties, etc. be as dye-free as possible. I hate being a food cop but this is serious stuff, and parents are generally underinformed on the topic).

Lunchtime Observations

My daughter recently started attending our neighborhood public school. I live in a middle-class, diverse neighborhood, but most the middle-class parents around here send their kids to private school. The public school my daughter attends is comprised mostly of working-class and poorer families, many of whom may not have the time or inclination to review the clinical research on every ingredient that goes into their kids’ mouths. Quite a few of the kids have behavioral problems, including trouble paying attention and frequent emotional outbursts. I sometimes volunteer at lunchtime, and after seeing what some of these kids eat, I can’t help but wonder if some of the behavioral problems are related to the Kool-Aid, Lunchables, and other junk that passes as “food.” Check out the ingredients list from a Lunchable:

Read the fine print (Yellow 6, Red 40, Blue 1)

Read the fine print (Yellow 6, Red 40, Blue 1)

Do you really want to feed your kids chemicals that have been linked to such a wide array of health problems? It’s not just ADHD kids who are affected, it’s everyone.

Nanny State

Libertarians love to rail against the “nanny state.” But the way I see it, making it illegal for corporations to attempt to sell/feed poison to my kid is a reasonable restriction on corporate freedom.

Over the last 100% years, the FDA has disallowed use of 73 of the original 80 petroleum-based artificial colors. Do you really think the remaining seven are that much safer? Review the existing research before you answer.

I love the Skittles commercials. But I’m fine with looking at the rainbow. I don’t need to taste it.

What Can You Do?

Sign this petition on change.org to remove artificial dyes from M&M’s.

Experiment in your own household. If you remove all artificial color from everyone’s diet, do behavior and mood change for the better?

When you go shopping for Halloween candy (if you do that kind of thing), choose candy without artificial colors. Take a few seconds the read the ingredient list.

Talk to other parents (without attacking them). All parents love their kids, but they may have no idea that artificial colors are linked to behavioral and health problems. After all, these chemicals are FDA approved, right?

Share this post, help spread the word.


Silk Road Dreamer — What Would a Less Coercive State Look Like?

What if the state could only use force to prevent bodily harm?

What if the state could only use force to prevent bodily harm?

I’ve been following the story of Ross Ulbricht and his fallen Silk Road empire. For those of you who have been living in cave, Ross Ulbricht is the alleged mastermind behind the buy-illegal-drugs-online-and-have-them-shipped-to-your-mailbox-in-plain-brown-envelope website Silk Road. Through the use of Bitcoins (an anonymous digital currency, “digital cash”) and TOR (an anonymous internet), Ulbricht earned some US$80M in sales commissions, enabling dealers and clients to directly connect without the hassle and expense of street-level middlemen. Sound like a familiar business model? Amazon.com has done quite well with the same.

Last week the FBI finally caught up with Ulbricht, and the Silk Road is no more. All the Bitcoins have been “seized,” though it remains to be seen if the FBI can decrypt Ulbricht’s Bitcoin wallet, where most of the money resides. Ulbricht’s capture represents the beginning of law enforcement’s struggle with online sales of illegal drugs, not the end. Dozens of alternatives, including Sheep Marketplace, are already up and running.

What interests me most about this story is Ulbricht’s self-professed libertarian ideals. From his LinkedIn profile, Ulbricht writes:

“I want to use economic theory as a means to abolish the use of coercion and agression [sic] amongst mankind. Just as slavery has been abolished most everywhere, I believe violence, coercion and all forms of force by one person over another can come to an end. The most widespread and systemic use of force is amongst institutions and governments, so this is my current point of effort.

The best way to change a government is to change the minds of the governed, however. To that end, I am creating an economic simulation to give people a first-hand experience of what it would be like to live in a world without the systemic use of force.”

Somewhere along the way Ulbricht lost track of his non-coercive ideals, and hired a hitman to off his former employee. Still, I’d like to take some time to explore Ulbricht’s vision. It’s easy to write off libertarianism entirely as a kind of sophomoric idealism, but the (libertarian) ideal of Freedom is tagged as “sticky” in the forums of American consciousness, and deserves discussion.

So here’s my thought experiment for the day: What would a less coercive form of government look like? What if police and/or the military could legally use force against a citizen only if that citizen was threatening the life of another citizen? In other words, a police officer could not legally pull a gun (or threaten to pull a gun or use any other form of coercion) on a citizen for any of the following offenses: trespassing, theft, tax evasion, non-payment of rent, using drugs, selling drugs, playing loud music/disturbing the peace, drinking alcohol in a public place, growing psychoactive plants, selling raw milk, etc.

And here’s my teaser: I know a place that already operates according to these rules. I’ll reveal the location at the end of the post.

What Keeps People Behaving Well?

Really it comes down to that question, doesn’t it? If the state can only use force to protect life, what’s going to stop people from going nuts, stealing stuff, vandalizing everything, not paying their taxes, etc.?

Most of the answers are fairly obvious, including:

  • Conscience: Non-sociopaths have empathy, and will generally treat other people how they like to be treated
  • Shame: Human beings are quite good at shaming others human beings who don’t follow social convention. Don’t believe me? Go try cutting in line somewhere in the U.S. and see how that works out for you.
  • Path of least resistance: If rules and laws are reasonable, it’s often easier to just follow them, even if nobody is pointing a gun at your head if you don’t.

Some possibly less obvious factors/trends:

  • Information transparency: Which would compel you more to pay your taxes, 1) threat of audit and jail, or 2) every single person who looked at you instantly knowing if you were a tax evader? I think for many people, option 2 would be the stronger motivator, even though it doesn’t involve a gun to your head. Google Glass (or the equivalent) and public tax records could make item 2 a reality, no state coercion necessary.
  • Trust in government: Which would compel you to more to pay your taxes, 1) government spending on citizen spying programs, invading foreign states, and “bailing out” profiteering corporations or 2) healthcare, emergency services, roads, and education for your community? These choices reflect my own personal bias, but my larger point is that government spending that reflects the values of citizens requires less enforcement when it comes to tax collections. Obviously not all citizens have the same values, but in this age of Corporatism, citizen values in general are underrepresented.
  • Less income inequality: Radical income inequality erodes social trust. In South Africa, homes of the upper class are walled off and barred off. As a contrast, in Denmark, this is how they deal with thieves. Yes, the video is kind of a joke, but the point is that in countries with less extreme states of poverty and wealth, there is a less of a need to enforce property rights with coercive and defensive means.

It’s ironic that a social democracy/welfare state like Denmark can put the libertarian ideal of low coercion into practice. I’m not saying the peaceful wooden pony repo actually demonstrates anything, but Denmark does have a good record of preserving citizen freedoms and protecting human rights. Other European social democracies protect the “freedom to roam“; this would be called trespassing in the United States — behavior a cop could arrest you for (and shoot you if you resisted arrest).

So what would actually change if the threat of force were removed in most cases? This wouldn’t mean that everything illegal would suddenly become legal. But it would mean that a cop couldn’t arrest you and drag you off to jail except in the most extreme cases (such as willfully injuring another person, or threatening to do so). What immediate effects would this have on society?

  • Government income from taxation would go down, unless governments could persuade citizens that the money wasn’t being wasted/squandered.
  • With the threat of forced eviction removed, it’s possible that fewer people would be interested in being landlords. With less demand, housing prices might go down.
  • Fewer silly, pointless laws (few people would obey them and even fewer would care).
  • More value might be placed on finding ways to persuade citizens to behave well; “social engineering” via education, nutrition, stable family structures, development of empathy through reading and writing, etc. How do you create a good person that generally behaves well?

A Possible Alternative To State-Sanctioned Coercion: The Citizenship Score

Disclaimer: the following idea is in no way libertarian, though it could potentially result in reaching a libertarian ideal (less use of force by the government, including the use of force to make people pay taxes). In fact, this suggestion veers in the opposite direction, towards that of the ultimate libertarian bogeyman, The Nanny State.

Here’s my idea: instead of using force or threatening to use force against citizens who don’t comply with property, substance, and decency laws (like paying your taxes, not stealing things, not drinking in public, not spray-painting your tag on walls and signs, etc.), implement a citizenship score. Your score would go up for regular compliance with laws, and it would down with violations. You could boost your score by performing community service, and other actions that benefited the public good (like inventing something useful and not patenting it, or publishing works under Creative Commons). Your score would be publicly available.

Corporations already have something like this. It’s called a credit score. It rates the only things corporations care about. That is, do you pay your bills on time?

You could argue that a public citizenship score would be a massive violation of privacy. But arrest records are already public. Why shouldn’t being a good citizen be public? And if a citizenship score could replace state-sanctioned violence against citizens, even libertarians might go for it.

Would the threat of a low citizenship score actually dissuade people from breaking the law? I think it would, if they had any interest in getting a job, dating, making new friends, or any other activity that would require impressing people you didn’t already know, and who might check up on you.

Could it be gamed? Of course it could, just like a credit score can be gamed. I can already see the Tim Ferriss blogpost: “How To Massively Boost Your Citizenship Score In Only Four Hours”. Could it be abused? Probably — there would have to be an appeals process; there would be huge legal and technical overhead and expenses involved in implementing such a system and making sure it was more-or-less fair.

But I still like the idea. I especially like the idea of the state persuading citizens to behave well, rather than using the constant threat of violence for citizens who don’t comply with the law. Consider the following scenario: a teenager is spray-painting on a wall; a cop sees them and tells them to freeze; the teenager panics and runs; the cop catches them and threatens them with the use of deadly force if they resist; the teenager resists; the cop (legally) kills the teenager. Punishment for graffiti = death? This kind of shit really happens. It’s just not civilized. I’m suggesting that the hypothetical graffiti artist should receive a demerit on their citizenship score instead. Nanny state? Yes. Death penalty for street art? No.

We’re nearing a society with 0% privacy. Soon, everything we do will be recorded. If you combine 100% surveillance with 100% coercive law enforcement, you get fascism. But if you combine 100% surveillance with 5% coercive law enforcement (reserving state force for protecting people from bodily harm) then you get what? A Libertarian Nanny State? Whatever you want to call it, it’s better than fascism.

A Functioning Near-Anarchic City

The anarchic ideal is not chaos, but rather a smoothly functioning society that operates without a centralized state threatening to use force against its own citizens to keep them in line.

In Oakland, California, the city I call home, we basically have a functioning anarchy (at least in terms of law enforcement). There are so few police per citizen, and the police are so demoralized, that people can basically do what they want without any fear of law enforcement getting involved.

This is not a good thing. We lead the nation in robberies. In some parts of town people dump their trash in the streets and get away it. It’s hard to find a public object without at least one ugly graffiti tag.

What’s remarkable is that things aren’t worse. Most people are good, and will obey reasonable laws because that’s a sensible thing to do. Huge swaths of the city are attractive, clean, well tended, quiet, and relatively safe. Oakland has huge problems, but it’s remarkable how good things are, considering there is almost zero law enforcement in many parts of the city.


Ross Ulbricht fell into the classic criminal Catch-22; when other criminals don’t play fair, you can’t call the police on them. You have to get your own hands dirty. In order to protect his private property, and avoid going to jail, Ulbricht chose to become the enforcer, and his central ideal went out the window.

I believe violence, coercion and all forms of force by one person over another can come to an end.

Outsourcing the use of force to the state is one of central pillars of society. We allow the police to enforce laws so we don’t have sit at home all day, holding a rifle and guarding our loot. But how far can we roll back this threat of force? With less income inequality and less scarcity, we might eventually abolish (or at least lessen) the need/desire to steal. And with increased surveillance and less privacy, we might be able to use reputation instead of force to motivate behavior.

What do you think?

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén