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The Productivity Paradox: Why Hasn’t the Expansion of Technology Improved the Quality of Life?

May 25, 2015 Leave a comment

Paul Krugman’s column in today’s NYTimes, “The Big Meh“, revisits paradoxical questions that emerged from the expansion of technology in the late 1970s:

…the era of the “productivity paradox,” a two-decade-long period during which technology seemed to be advancing rapidly — personal computing, cellphones, local area networks and the early stages of the Internet — yet economic growth was sluggish and incomes stagnant.

Krugman offers some thoughts as to why productivity never materialized and intimates that technology may be oversold as a means of improving the quality of life for most people. He concludes his piece confessing that he is at a loss to explain why technology hasn’t changed our quality of life for the better:

So what do I think is going on with technology? The answer is that I don’t know — but neither does anyone else. Maybe my friends at Google are right, and Big Data will soon transform everything. Maybe 3-D printing will bring the information revolution into the material world. Or maybe we’re on track for another big meh.

Craig Lambert’s Politico article, “The Second Job You Didn’t Know You Had“, answers part of the question. Lambert’s article suggests that DIY tasks taken on by consumers have eliminated the bottom rung of the employment ladder and thereby eliminated opportunities for many non-college educated workers to enter the job market. Shareholders and CEOs who want to cut costs love this because ATMs and self-service scanners don’t join unions, never take sick leave, and make fewer mistakes than those pesky employees…. and the elimination of these lower rung jobs has created an oversupply of workers for middle tier job suppressing those wages. At the same time the cost of benefits drives employers to find more and more ways to limit wages and jobs creating a vicious circle that diminishes opportunities for employment. Indeed, computer technology is now replacing or facilitating the outsourcing of high-end analytic jobs like x-ray technicians, para-legal reviewers, and—yes— even teaching!

Robert Shiller, Yale economic professor, offers some insights into how teaching can avoid becoming obsolete in his Sunday NYTimes Upshot article “What to Learn in College to Stay One Step Ahead of Computers”:

Two strains of thought seem to dominate the effort to deal with (the) problem (of computers and robots replacing humans) . The first is that we teachers should define and provide to our students a certain kind of general, flexible, insight-bearing human learning that, we hope, cannot be replaced by computers. The second is that we need to make education more business-oriented, teaching about the real world and enabling a creative entrepreneurial process that, presumably, computers cannot duplicate. These two ideas are not necessarily in conflict.

Shiller cites a study completed in the early 2000s by Richard J. Murnane and Frank Levy that concluded people with “...complex communication skills and expert knowledge” would fare well in future economies. This leads Shiller to conclude that changes are needed at the college and universities in our country:

…the study certainly suggests that a college education needs to be broad and general, and not defined primarily by the traditional structure of separate departments staffed by professors who want, most of all, to be at the forefront of their own narrow disciplines. But this old departmental structure is still fundamental at universities, and it is hard to change.

Shiller offers one workaround to the ossified and seemingly unchangeable departmental structure: preparing students for “entrepreneurial opportunities” suggested by each department’s disciplines… and Shiller describes how he has done this in economics course where he strives to “…connect mathematical theory to actual applications in finance.” But Shiller’s teaching practice keeps him one step ahead of computers; he now provides his lectures on-line and uses his time to modify the content of the class to match current changes in the economy and works with his students to guide them in a way a robot cannot:

Since its beginnings, the course has gradually become more robotic: It resembles a real, dynamic, teaching experience, but in execution, much of it is prerecorded, and exercises and examinations are computerized. Students can take it without need of my physical presence. Yale made my course available to the broader public on free online sites: AllLearn in 2002, Open Yale in 2008 and 2011, and now on Coursera.

The process of tweaking and improving the course to fit better in a digital framework has given me time to reflect about what I am doing for my students. I could just retire now and let them watch my lectures and use the rest of the digitized material. But I find myself thinking that I should be doing something more for them.

So I continue to update the course, thinking about how I can integrate its lessons into an “art of living in the world.” I have tried to enhance my students’ sense that finance should be the art of financing important human activities, of getting people (and robots someday) working together to accomplish things that we really want done.

On-line learning will never mitigate the need for human interaction… but Shiller suggests it will change the way teachers interact with students and the way schools will ultimately be organized. From my perspective, the sooner we integrate technology into the learning process the sooner we will see productivity gains… but integrating computer technology in schools will require the abandonment of age-based cohort grouping in factor of individualization… and the abandonment of that organizational structure will be at least as difficult as the abandonment of the departmental structure at colleges.

VIDEO: How to Reinvent Education to Save the Economy (from @Truthdig)

May 24, 2015 Leave a comment

VIDEO: How to Reinvent Education to Save the Economy (from @Truthdig).

Robert Reich gets it ALMOST 100% right: we also need to abandon the practice of age-based grouping and adopt competency based learning. With that additional step we can reinvent education.

What Do Colleges Need to Know of Applicants?

May 24, 2015 Leave a comment

An editorial in today’s NYTimes poses this question in an essay titled “What College Applications Shouldn’t Ask”, and they respond that any questions about a student’s discipline record should be disallowed and they make a compelling argument for their case. Here’s the arguments against seeking information on this:

  •  …“zero tolerance” policies make it more likely that children will drop out, and they are especially damaging to minority students, who are disproportionately subjected to suspension, expulsion or even arrest for nonviolent offenses.”
  • Discipline policies are inconsistent from state-to-state, district-to-district and school-to-school
  • Infractions that occur in the early years of high school, before a student matures, could make the difference between acceptance and rejection, which is “…unfair on its face
  • Not all schools provide this data for colleges, making it unfair to students whose schools DO provide that information
  • Colleges have “haphazard” procedures for using the disciplinary data

The editorial concludes with this paragraph:

Given the inherent unfairness of this system, school districts should adopt a policy of withholding disciplinary information, and colleges should refrain from using any such information in admissions decisions.

But here are some questions the NYTimes and, by extension, colleges need to think through:

  • Criminal records in general: Are criminal records important to admissions officers? As we’ve read of late, there is a difference in how police define “criminal behavior” in some jurisdictions than others… and the tendency is for police in affluent communities to allow a child whose car reeks of marijuana off with a warning while police in less affluent areas will use the odor to search the car and book the student.
  • Specific criminal actions: The editorial asserts that “Disciplinary data is junk information that can hurt students while doing nothing to meaningfully distinguish them from other applicants.” But we also know that some crimes are worse than others. Is a male student who was suspended for assaulting a female someone a college would welcome on campus? Is a student who stole tests from a teacher’s locked filing cabinet someone a college would want on campus? Is a student who vandalized a teacher’s car in retribution for a bad grade a good prospect? Is a student who sold drugs a good prospect for campus? There may be some disciplinary offenses that should be shared so that colleges are making informed decisions about admissions.
  • Internet data: In this day-and-age of willful “sharing” how should colleges deal with students who post compromising and/or self-incriminating pictures on social media? Who post racist or sexist slogans? In an era where local newspapers post arrest information are colleges expected to glean information on incoming students to ensure that they are excluding students who engaged in predatory behavior? For example, if a local newspaper reported that a member of a high school football team engaged in hazing activities should that student be denied admission?

I’ve been a high school administrator and disciplinarian and would tend to side with the initial thinking put forth in the Times editorial… but I’ve also been a Superintendent charged with hiring individuals who will be working with children and in that capacity have dealt with the questions posed above. Applications typically ask candidates to disclose criminal records and many do list offenses like those listed above. In many cases I was asked whether I should automatically disqualify someone from coaching or substitute teaching if they smoked marijuana 25 years ago and got caught? Would I automatically disqualify someone from a night custodial position because they served prison time a decade ago for an assault when they were addicted and impulsive? And near the end of my career Principals and I wrestled with questions about postings on the internet that showed athletes drinking or smoking or boasting of those activities as well as postings that bullied and intimidated other students.

In today’s world where criminalization is situational, where information is widely shared, and where tolerance and second chances are often beneficial to those who are on the lower end of the economic ladder it is increasingly difficult to make hard and fast determinations on admissions to colleges or opportunities to work. What do colleges need to know about applicants? I hunk the answer is: “As much as they can find out so that they can make a fully informed decision.”


Subsidizing Parochial Parents with Public School Funds

May 23, 2015 Leave a comment

Mario Cuomo’s latest stunt involving the use of public funds to subsidize private schools was so blatantly unfair that even the NYTimes editors were appalled! In “A Costly Tax Break for Nonpublic Schools” the Times editorial board saw the effect of Cuomo’s policies. The first paragraph offers a summary of the bill, that would:

…help private and parochial schools, by offering big tax credits to their donors. This… expensive and possibly unconstitutional bill that Mr. Cuomo has named the Parental Choice in Education Act could cost the state more than $150 million a year. That money should be used to help almost 2.7 million public school students in the state, not given to wealthy donors subsidizing mainly private or religious schools.

The editorial goes on to describe who would benefit from the passage of this bill:

The $150 million pool includes millions of dollars in tax credits for donations that could provide scholarships to private or parochial students from families with incomes of up to $300,000 a year, which hardly targets the neediest students.

So while Cuomo is slashing spending on public education he has devised a bill that would effectively provide tax breaks to upper middle class parents who have already enrolled their children in private schools… and called the bill the “Parental Choice in Education Act” to make it sound as if children raised in poverty will have a choice in attending a different school.

In a concluding paragraph the Times editors appear to be onto Cuomo’s ultimate game:

With this misguided bill, Mr. Cuomo may have found plenty of support from religious leaders and private school donors. But his efforts seems jarring, given his record of seeking more accountability in schools. The state has little say in private and parochial schools over testing, the teaching of basic subjects or other data collection required for assessing a good education.

The Times editors have bought into the notion that giving children raised in poverty the opportunity to attend deregulated for-profit charter schools is the best way to address the problem of “failing public schools”. At the same time the editors have overlooked the fact that these schools primarily benefit the shareholders of the schools and that the State has little say in their operations. MAYBE by looking at Cuomo’s motives in securing passage for this bill they will see that Cuomo’s ultimate goal is to monetize a government service that was designed to promote equal opportunity for all children no matter where they were born.


NYTimes’ Late– and Poorly Analyzed– Acknowledgement of Opt Out Movement’s Effectiveness

May 23, 2015 Leave a comment

On Thursday, the NYTimes finally acknowledged that the opt out movement was having an impact on the “reform” movement but missed the boat completely on their analysis of why it is happening. In “‘Opt Out” Becomes Anti-Test Rallying Cry in New York State“, Elizabeth Harris and Ford Fessenden admitted that the movement had gotten the attention of legislators who were “…now tripping over one another to introduce bills that guarantee the right to refuse to take tests”. But the article is full of misleading statements and erroneous conclusions. Take this paragraph for example:

…some education officials and advocacy groups fear the opt-out movement will reverse a long-term effort to identify teachers and schools — and students — who are not up to par, at least as far as their test performance goes. Of particular concern is that without reliable, consistent data, children in minority communities may be left to drift through schools that fail them, without consequences.

The “long-term effort” to identify “teachers… who are not up to par” based on test scores has just started in NY State and has only been in place in one state since 2003. The “long-term effort” to identify “schools… who are not up to par” based on test scores goes back, at most, to just over a decade when NCLB took effect, though some states have used test scores to identify districts that require intervention for 20 +/- years. And the “long-term effort” to identify “students… who are not up to par” based on standardized test scores has only been in place in NY for anything resembling a “long term”. The whole notion that test scores should be the ultimate assessment for teachers, schools and students, then, is a recent phenomenon.

The notion that children in minority communities “may be left to drift” because of failing schools is preposterous. Schools serving minority students have been allowed to drift for decades… and not even a national Supreme Court ruling overturning “separate but equal” or State Supreme Court rulings requiring funding equity have changed that one iota. The civil rights organizations promoting the use of standardized tests to provide equity should first promote the passage of legislation in their states that would provide schools serving minority students with the same services and curriculum offered to students in affluent suburbs.

And this paragraph from the article elicited many rebuttals from commenters:

The refusal movement sprouted after states instituted tougher tests in recent years aligned with the Common Core standards, which, in many districts, caused scores to plummet.

The commenters made it clear to the NYTimes that they were NOT opting out because the tests were too hard or because they created too much pressure: they were opting out because they did not want the tests to dictate the curriculum in their school and the test scores to define their kids, their school, or the teachers in the school.

The article ends with one a response from a think tank that advocated high stakes testing but has now concluded that some states may have gone overboard:

But Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education policy organization, said that rather than enforcing the rules, government officials might very well retreat.

“You could write a really good history of education writ large about our tendency in this country to go from one extreme to the other, and this has all the hallmarks of that,” Mr. Pondiscio said. “This is not a prediction, but it would not surprise me to see New York, or someplace else, go from testing every kid within an inch of their life to testing nobody, ever.

I doubt that the complete elimination of all standardized testing is happening any time soon… but it may come to pass in the next decade or so that formative testing and competency-based instruction will replace summative testing and norm-referenced instruction… but only if newspapers like the NYTimes help make the public aware of the promise of such an approach.

William Bennett’s Perspective on Public Education Prevails Today

May 22, 2015 Leave a comment

After reading a Forbes op ed column written by William Bennett, it dawned on me that we have gone decades without having a Secretary of Education who spoke out on behalf of the good work that public schools do in the face of adversity. Instead, from Terrell Bell forward each of the Secretaries of Education have used the theme of “failing public schools” as the basis for seeking more funding for schools and from Bennett forward each secretary has implicitly or explicitly promoted the notion that charter schools are a viable alternative. As a result, the re-branding of public education as “government schools” combined with our country’s deep faith in the marketplace has led voters to believe that the best way to fix the “failing public schools” is to replace them with deregulated for-profit charters that parents can opt into the same way they opt into buying a car.

Bennett’s column subtly plays into this notion and is full of disinformation and/or misinformation. Titled “Overcoming the Honesty Gap in Public Education” Bennett implies that States implemented watered down tests to look good but their “dishonesty” resulted in no improvement on the NAEP:

This is a serious problem, but, of course, it is not new. Intentional or not, many states have been offering less than truthful and accurate definitions of proficiency for far too long.

Of course one the reasons for that discrepancy was the fact that states were in effect permitted to develop their own standards and assessments, something that the Federal government was supposedly reversing with the implementation of NCLB Race to the Top. Ironically, one of the “reforms” in the new federal legislation is the chance for States to develop their own standards and assessments, which will exacerbate Bennett’s call for consistent definitions of proficiency.

Bennett also disingenuously misrepresents the development of the common core as a grassroots and voluntary undertaking:

Over the past five years, more than 40 states have diligently begun to implement the Common Core standards, which were conceived in mutual and voluntary agreement between the states, not under the pressure of the federal government. (Granted, the federal government has since intruded in some areas, but that is no longer the case and we must fight to ensure it doesn’t happen again.)

To paraphrase his earlier quote, Mr. Bennett is being “less than truthful and accurate” in his description of how the common core came into being. But the concluding sentences are the ones that jumped out at me because they are irreconcilable with the direction his party wants to take public education:

But the first step to addressing performance concerns is establishing a system that accurately identifies them through the implementation of higher standards and more rigorous testing requirements. American education is moving in the right direction right now. Let’s not slow or stop the progress.

Here’s my question for Mr. Bennett: if you are fighting to keep the federal government from intruding in mandatory testing how will you keep states from “offering less than truthful and accurate definitions of proficiency?”

Minnesota’s Governor Fights Hard for Public Education— MAYBE Too Hard

May 22, 2015 Leave a comment

Mark Dayton, Minnesota’s Democrat governor, wants Universal fully funded pre-Kindergarten offered in public schools across the state. Because of his approach to taxation (as contrasted with his neighboring state Wisconsin), Minnesota has the $125,000,000 needed to do this and have $1,000,000,000 left over to offer rollbacks on some taxes and/or improve the transportation budget. But the Minnesota legislature has a different agenda for public schools, one that seeks more for-profit charters predicated on the belief that “failing government schools” need to be replaced by imaginative and forward thinking charters. So… when the legislature hammered out it’s budget they gave the governor the funding he requested for public schools but omitted the funding for the pre-Kindergarten initiative that was his major priority. The Governors’ reaction? As reported by NPR, Governor Dayton offered these thoughts about the Republicans who dominate the legislature in a press conference:

“They hate the public schools, some of the Republican legislators,” the governor said. “They’re loathe to provide any additional money for public schools and for public school teachers because all of the good programs I’ve seen around this state for pre-K and all-day kindergarten. All of those programs contradict what they say, which is public schools do things badly.”

Predictably the Republicans pushed back… but not on the substance of his statement— their reluctance to “…provide any additional money for public schools and for public school teachers” because of the fact that doing so contradicts their “failing public schools” narrative. No… the Republicans lashed out at the Governor for characterizing some members of the Republican party as hating public schools.

The stories (see here, here, and here) that followed this press conference predictably focussed NOT on the evidence that some Republicans have animosity toward public schools, but rather on the Republican’s demand that Dayton apologize for saying that they “hate” public schools. One of the articles on the apology demand in the Pioneer Press reported that the Governor was not inclined to apologize. Why? At a subsequent press conference he asserted that “Republicans haven’t shown true support for public schools” and offered this quote:

“Actions speak louder than words,” Dayton said.

The Governor’s words were arguably truthful and honest… but they unfortunately gave the legislators a chance to shift the conversation away from their actions toward his words… Here’s hoping that in the coming weeks someone takes the time to assess the voting records and written and verbal statements of “some” Republicans to buttress the Governor’s assertion that “some” members of the party are adamantly opposed to the idea of “government run schools” and detest everything they stand for. Unless MN is different from most states in the country there will be a t least a handful of legislators who are on record in that fashion… But it might be easier for the Governor to acknowledge he could have chosen his words more wisely and offer an apology accordingly. THAT might help shift the conversation quickly to something more substantive.