Cyberspace and Planet Earth

April 22, 2014 Leave a comment

Two recent articles made me realize that there ARE limits to what technological and technocratic thinking can accomplish, and those limits are becoming evident as we see overreaching in public education.

One recent post from Diane Ravitch summarizes Peter Greene’s analysis of the Common Core. Greene, a pro-choice professor whose chair at the University of Arkansas is funded by the Walton Foundation. Greene concludes that technocratic universal solutions thinking like the Common Core cannot be applicable in public education. Indeed, he concludes that there are NO universally applicable fixes:

Whether your preferred policy solution is based on standards and accountability, parental choice, instructional reform, or something else, the better approach to reform is gradual and decentralized so that everyone can learn and adapt. Your reform strategy has to be consistent with the diverse, decentralized, and democratic country in which we live. You won’t fix everything for everyone right away, but you should avoid Great Leaps Forward. Seek partial victories because with the paradoxical logic of ed reform politics total victory ultimately leads to total defeat.

For proof of Greene’s last assertion, one has to look no further than the recently announced closure of InBloom, the Big Data enterprise underwritten to the tune of  “$100 million in philanthropic support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York.”  In response to the decision to close, InBloom’s CEO lamented that “It is a shame that the progress of this important innovation has been stalled because of generalized public concerns about data misuse, even though inBloom has world-class security and privacy protections that have raised the bar for school districts and the industry as a whole.” Actually, Greene’s analysis is more cogent: InBloom’s attempt at a total victory resulted in a total defeat… and Gates’ impatience at getting schools on board with his data-centric vision led to the failure. 

In my comment to Diane Ravitch’s blog post I observed that when technocrats make bundles of money using mathematical algorithms to “earn” money or develop computer codes and programs to corner the marketplace they believe they can use the same kind of thinking to solve social problems. Alas for them,  what works in cyberspace seldom works on planet earth.

Squelching Economic Royalists

April 22, 2014 Leave a comment

Common Dreams featured a blog post by Robert Borasage titled “Can Democracy Tame Plutocracy?” In the post Borosage describes how long it took for our country to move away from the oligarchy in place at the turn of the 20th Century, noting that it required years to accomplish. He then included a paragraph describing how FDR educated the public about the economic realities of his times and played to the big-heartedness of the country:

In “The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great,” Harvey Kaye provides a broad overview of this period. He details how FDR educated and mobilized Americans to take on the “economic royalists.” As we headed into World War II, FDR evoked the Four Freedoms – freedom of speech and of worship, and freedom from want and from fear – as the goals for which Americans would fight. As victory approached, he made the agenda clearer in his 1944 State of the Union address calling for an Economic Bill of Rights. Coming out of the war, millions of Americans took up the banner for their fallen leader.

But the battle for control of the economy never really ended… and as many progressive bloggers have noted by the early 1970s businessmen were quietly organizing think tanks that developed messages about how government is the problem and regulations squelch entrepreneurs and how free trade is necessary to compete in the global marketplace… and test messages, repeated frequently and persistently have permeated the American psyche to the extent that “government run schools” are now perceived as ineffective and inefficient.

Early in his essay, Borosage asserts that “we are living in a populist moment” and he closes with these paragraphs:

Kaye argues that fulfilling FDRs pledge may be hard, but it is not impossible. “Democracy is never given. It must be taken.” Or as FDR put it, “Democracy is not a static thing. It is an everlasting march,” and echoing Jefferson, “it is time for the country to become fairly radical for a generation.”

Now the battle of ideas has just been joined. The new populism needs to be nurtured, developed and spread. Hopefully, we won’t need to experience another calamity or world war to rouse Americans to take their democracy back.

As I noted in my comment, one way to fuel the flame of populism is to get the parents and school board members in this country to see that corporations want to control public education and will stop at nothing to do so. Another way would be to get a progressive liberal to run for president even if it is a quixotic campaign. NO ONE in the Democrat party seems willing to call the oligarchs “economic Royalists”… instead the neo-liberals want to praise businessmen and turn over the operation of public enterprise to them because “government is inefficient”… It would be refreshing to have someone remind the public that government regulation is necessary to keep oligarchs in check and opportunities more equitable. 

Here’s hoping both of these ideas take root in the coming months.

Fund Families, Help Schools

April 21, 2014 1 comment

To Reduce Inequality, Start with Families” Judith Warner’s column in today’s NYTimes, provides a wealth of data that underscores the unfairness of our current workplace rules and illustrates a subtle way that employers’ leave practices reinforce inequality.

Warner’s solution to the issue of inequality is outlined in this paragraph:

If we want to strike at the roots of inequality in America, we’ve got to start at its source, in the family, at the very beginning of children’s lives. We have to make it possible for mothers — two-thirds of whom are now breadwinners or co-breadwinners for their families — to stay in the work force without the sort of family-related job interruptions that can greatly limit their lifetime earnings and even push some families into bankruptcy. We need to make it possible for all parents to give their kids the kind of head start that is increasingly becoming an exclusive birthright of the well-off.

In one of the subsequent paragraphs, she details the extent of the inequities in the workforce:

Among high-wage workers, according to an analysis by my colleague Sarah Jane Glynn, 66.2 percent have access to paid parental leave, compared with 10.8 percent of those who earn the lowest wages. And while 78.5 percent of the highest-paid workers have access to earned sick time, only 15.2 percent of the lowest-paid workers have the right to take paid days off if they or a family member get sick.

Warner then highlights the obvious consequences of this disparity: affluent workers spend more time with their infant children and families while low wage workers are forced to work. This, in turn, exacerbates the challenges of children raised in poverty. She writes: 

Inequality among families isn’t just about financial means, however. It’s also about the care parents can provide, the food they can prepare, and the amount and the nature of the time they can spend with their children. But today, the ability of parents to make the most basic time investments in their children — taking time for parent-teacher conferences or setting a schedule that permits a parent to sometimes be home in the after-school hours — is sharply divided by income level.

The lack of availability of parental time has serious detrimental effects on children’s behavior, ability to learn and emotional development — all of which affect performance in school and, eventually, the workplace… Such lessons about human resource cultivation have not been lost on China, which now includes as part of its economic growth policies a provision that women employed in public enterprises get 98 days of paid maternity leave.

Those who are worried about global competitiveness should read that last sentence… and instead of advocating the imposition of more tests for children at younger and younger ages the corporate world should be promoting more maternity and paternity leave and more sick leave for employees. The link between healthy families, well educated children, and a good work force couldn’t be clearer.

NYTimes Doesn’t Get the Common Core

April 20, 2014 Leave a comment

Today’s NYTimes featured a lengthy article explaining the political division within the Republican party over the Common Core, an article that repeats lots of misinformation (or perhaps DIS-information) on the Common Core. Here are two instances where the Times repeated the assertion that the Common Core was developed independent of the federal government.

  • “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.” NO!!! The Common Core was adopted AFTER the USDoE effectively mandated their adoption in the States by linking the CCSS to the State’s ability to get waivers from NCLB
  • “Supporters of the Common Core, which outlines skills that students in each grade should master but leaves actual decisions about curriculum to states and districts, say that it was not created by the federal government and that it was up to the states to decide whether to adopt the standards” NO AGAIN!!! The Common Core was adopted AFTER the USDoE effectively mandated their adoption in the States by linking the CCSS to the State’s ability to get waivers from NCLB.

Even more maddening is the depiction of the opposition on the left coming predominantly from the teachers unions “…because of the new, more difficult tests aligned to the standards that are being used to evaluate both students and teachers.” which is reinforced by a quote from Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam who contends the opposition includes “…folks on the left associated with teachers unions who are trying to sever any connection between test results and teacher evaluation”. As readers of this blog realize I worked for 29 years as a Superintendent of Schools and have written and spoken against the use of value added metrics for the past five years. Anyone who seeks rational, evidence based tools for evaluation would necessarily reject the use of standardized test scores as a primary basis in the evaluation process.

Some of the commenters tried to correct misunderstandings… but some just echoed the bad information or built on the incorrect information the Times provided. If the national “newspaper of record” is not recording information accurately, it is hard to engage in a meaningful debate about the direction we should be taking in public education.

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Getting Work at Google

April 20, 2014 Leave a comment

Thomas Friedman is so enamored of the high tech economy that he devoted today’s column to an interview he had recently with Laszlo Beck, Google’s HR Director, on job seeking in today’s economy. Google hires “100 people per week”, which pales in comparison to the hiring that manufacturing enterprises did in year’s past, and doesn’t begin to compare to the 4,200,000 job openings that occurred in February 2014. That said, there was one piece of advice that Mr. Beck provided regarding college enrollment that resonated with me:

“My belief is not that one shouldn’t go to college,” said Bock. It is that among 18- to 22-year-olds — or people returning to school years later — “most don’t put enough thought into why they’re going, and what they want to get out of it.” 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. “The first and most important thing is to be explicit and willful in making the decisions about what you want to get out of this investment in your education.” It’s a huge investment of time, effort and money and people should think “incredibly hard about what they’re getting in return.”

This resonated with me because I believe the same guidelines apply to high school. Not everyone enrolled in high school has a purpose in mind and those who don’t tend to do far worse than those who do. A “college prep” student enters high school with an implicit purpose: they are taking courses to prepare themselves to go to college once they graduate from college. A student who enters high school with no intention of going to college and no clear picture of what they hope to accomplish AFTER high school is adrift. Much of the reform movement in public education assumes that every student aspires to college… an assumption that makes it easy to develop standardized tests that measure progress toward that assumed goal. But many– if not most– students enter high school without a clear understanding of what they are going to get in return for the time they are investing… and without that clear understanding school is difficult for the student and motivation is a challenge for the teachers.

Assuming everyone aspires to or needs college is preposterous. We need to spend more time and energy connecting with each student in order to make our schooling relevant to them and less time testing them to see if they are “ready for college”.

The Dalai Lama, Capitalism, and Schools

April 19, 2014 Leave a comment

One of the most emailed articles today is “Capitalism and the Dalai Lama” by Arthur C. Brooks of the conservative American Enterprise Institute. While Brooks did not make a direct inquiry into the Dalai Lama’s views of schools, some of the Dalai Lama’s responses to his questions underscore the failings of the US brand of capitalism. For example:

(The Dalai Lama) made it abundantly clear that he did not advocate an every-man-for-himself economy. He insisted that while free enterprise could be a blessing, it was not guaranteed to be so. Markets are instrumental, not intrinsic, for human flourishing. As with any tool, wielding capitalism for good requires deep moral awareness. Only activities motivated by a concern for others’ well-being, he declared, could be truly “constructive.” 

Money per se is not evil. For the Dalai Lama, the key question is whether “we utilize our favorable circumstances, such as our good health or wealth, in positive ways, in helping others.” There is much for Americans to absorb here. Advocates of free enterprise must remember that the system’s moral core is neither profits nor efficiency. It is creating opportunity for individuals who need it the most.

And after spending time meditating with the Dalai Lama and interacting with him at length, what action does Mr. Brooks believe our country needs to take?

We need to combine an effective, reliable safety net for the poor with a hard look at modern barriers to upward mobility. That means attacking cronyism that protects the well-connected. It means lifting poor children out of ineffective schools that leave them unable to compete.

My guess: the American Enterprise Institute will likely NOT heed Brooks’ assertion that the free enterprise system’s “moral core is neither profits nor efficiency”. They will instead suggest that school choice, public education based on free enterprise’s assumptions, is the bet way to “lift poor children out of ineffective schools” and will tout the use of standardized test results and the application of business practices to save tax dollars. In short, the AEI will go for profits and efficiency instead of using our nation’s wealth in positive ways to help others”. It IS encouraging to see the Dalai Lama reaching out to US capitalists and encouraging to read that at least one conservative writer has absorbed the message… Now let’s see if he will advocate that his fellow capitalists to engage in truly constructive activities… activities motivated by a concern for others’ well-being.

High Stakes Testing Dying in OK

April 19, 2014 Leave a comment

Oklahoma, like Texas, has overreached in its testing and the legislature is responding with rollbacks after getting an earful from parents, teachers and other voters. What kinds of legislation is being appealed?

  • “…the mandatory retention of third-graders who fail the state’s reading assessment administered under the Reading Sufficiency Act” which was repealed by overwhelming majorities in both the house and senate
  • The common core
  • A battery of tests in social studies and geography in the 8th grade, which, when coupled with previously passed legislation eliminates all testing of history in the K-12 continuum
  • A-F ratings for schools based on assessments

The reasons for abandoning “reform” are mostly political.

“I think their constituents are getting engaged and involved. They are paying attention to the issues, and they will look at their options when it’s time to vote,” said Meredith Exline, president of Oklahoma Central Parent Legislative Action Committee.

Oh… and one other issue came to light after the legislature passed all of these “reforms”: changes require money!

Amber England, government affairs director for Stand for Children Oklahoma, which advocates for school reforms, said repealing mandatory retention could be seen as a sign the government has failed to properly fund reading programs that were supposed to make the Reading Sufficiency Act successful. She pointed to Oklahoma’s ranking as 49th in the nation in per-pupil funding.

“Schools are being asked to do a whole lot of new things, but they are not getting any money to do them,” England said. “These measures are in jeopardy because the Legislature hasn’t provided the money to do them properly.

So this development in OK, hardly the most progressive state in the nation, is heartening on some counts. They demonstrate that voters who are opposed to the top-down imposition of unproven practices can raise their collective voices and effect change— a sign that democracy may still be alive. They provide evidence that legislatures will need to either raise additional funds for “reforms” or pay the price at the polls. And, they indicate that parents are mad as hell about the testing straightjackets and will either unite to repeal legislation or withdraw from the testing regimen.

The development is disheartening, though, because given the choice between providing more funding to make OK’s public school spending competitive with other states or backing down on changes… it decided to avoid increased spending. It is also disheartening because other articles on the Common Core indicate the withdrawal of support for it was based as much on the content of the new standards (i.e. the inclusion of evolution as settled science) was as much a provocation as the common core’s link to testing. Finally, it is disheartening because the children who lived through the poorly conceived testing regimen, the poorly conceived efforts to address their learning deficiencies through the elimination of “social promotion”, and the narrow interaction that resulted from these “reforms” can never recover the time they lost preparing for tests that turned out to be immaterial.