“Veto Players” and the Glacial Pace of Change in Public Education

April 14, 2015 Leave a comment

On Sunday I wrote a post on Jill Lepore’s New Yorker article on inequality, a post that focussed on the primary topic of her article. Two of the paragraphs near the end of her article described research done by two scholars of comparative politics, Alfred Stepan, at Columbia, and the late Juan J. Linz. While their research was done to determine why inequality was worse in the United States, I believe it is applicable to the question of why it is so difficult to make changes in public institutions like schools. Here are the paragraphs from Lepore’s article on their findings:

Stepan and Linz identified twenty-three long-standing democracies with advanced economies. Then they counted the number of veto players in each of those twenty-three governments. (A veto player is a person or body that can block a policy decision. Stepan and Linz explain, “For example, in the United States, the Senate and the House of Representatives are veto players because without their consent, no bill can become a law.”) More than half of the twenty-three countries Stepan and Linz studied have only one veto player; most of these countries have unicameral parliaments. A few countries have two veto players; Switzerland and Australia have three. Only the United States has four. Then they made a chart, comparing Gini indices with veto-player numbers: the more veto players in a government, the greater the nation’s economic inequality. This is only a correlation, of course, and cross-country economic comparisons are fraught, but it’s interesting.

Then they observed something more. Their twenty-three democracies included eight federal governments with both upper and lower legislative bodies. Using the number of seats and the size of the population to calculate malapportionment, they assigned a “Gini Index of Inequality of Representation” to those eight upper houses, and found that the United States had the highest score: it has the most malapportioned and the least representative upper house. These scores, too, correlated with the countries’ Gini scores for income inequality: the less representative the upper body of a national legislature, the greater the gap between the rich and the poor.

Stepan and Linz suggest that political solutions to complicated problems like economic inequality are difficult to address because of the convoluted system of governance we have in place at the federal level. After reading these paragraphs I was struck by the thought that their principles apply to organizational change in general. Large hierarchical organizations with layers of veto players are far less nimble than small flat organizations who can make changes quickly. And NO ONE has more veto players than public schools, whose veto players include:

  • Federal legislators
  • Federal regulators
  • State legislators
  • State regulators
  • Local school boards
  • Voters who must adopt budgets
  • Teachers unions
  • Parent organizations

In formulating a change in policy or the implementation of a new educational approach, school superintendents are expected to get the support of each one of these veto players. Given these veto players it is no surprise that deregulated charters can thrive and offer more innovations and alternative approaches. I’ll be revisiting this concept in the months to come.

Confessions of a Free Range Child… and Parent

April 13, 2015 1 comment

The arrest of the parents of a 10 year old brother who was walking his 6 year old sister home from a park in Maryland has generated national coverage… and most of it expresses incredulity at the charges of child neglect being leveled. The root of the problem seems to be the State law that requires anyone under 8 to be supervised by someone over 13… effectively establishing a minimum age for baby-sitting. Based on this standard both my parents and I were negligent.

As noted in earlier blog posts, my parents let me (indeed encouraged me) to explore the woods, play on a nearby sandlot, and spend time on building sites in a neighboring development. What I failed to note was that my parents allowed me— as a 5th grade student— to supervise my two younger siblings on the walk home from church on Sunday in Tulsa OK, a walk that exceeded a mile and required me to (gasp) navigate traffic lights and streets without sidewalks. I did this because my mother was home with a much younger sibling and my Dad sung in the choir for both the early service and the second service make it impossible for him to accompany us after the Sunday school that happened between the services. Oh… and there were times when my mother left me in charge of ALL the siblings if she needed to go to a doctor’s appointment during the day in the summer or both my parents had an evening engagement. Finally, my parents were so confident in my ability to manage children they recommended me to other families with youngsters and I earned money as a 12 year old supervising children who were under 6. Negligence abounded in the 1950s!

But I also violated MD laws as a parent when I allowed my 12 year old daughter to babysit her 3 year old sister when I was at Board meetings and my wife was teaching adult education… and I know my wife often had my older daughter take care of her sister when she wanted to work in her studio, tend to the garden that was located out of the small town in ME where we lived, and run errands. Thank goodness neighbors didn’t report us for neglect in the 1970s and early 1980s!

MD’s law is an example of how well-intentioned legislators can pass laws that defy common sense by trying to define it. There IS a reasonable set of standards that might be set for child supervision. It is hard to defend a six year old overseeing a toddler, for example… but what about an eight-year old? What if the period of time is for ten minutes while the mother runs an errand? What if the supervision occurs while the child is napping? I imagine there was a lengthy and thoughtful debate on the age limits that ultimately appeared in the law and I imagine that once those limits were adopted no one thought that anonymous phone calls from people who reside near public parks would trigger a rash of neglect charges.

I don’t have a specific suggestion for how to address this dilemma other than to keep the police out of the equation. A child held in a police station will have a different experience from a child held in a social worker’s office and the parents who are alleged to be neglectful would not be subject to public scrutiny…. but in the end we might want to consider a return to the 50s when parents encouraged independence and time spent outdoors over close supervision in a closely monitored and contained environment.

New Hampshire’s Competency-Based Learning Getting Traction

April 13, 2015 Leave a comment

I was heartened to read two articles describing a pilot program underway in four New Hampshire School districts. This paragraph from Julia Freedland’s article in the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Learning weekly newsletter provides a synopsis of the program:

New Hampshire’s Performance Assessment for Competency Education (PACE) pilot will allow locally managed assessments to count toward federal accountability requirements. New Hampshire’s PACE project began in 2012 as an opt-in effort for districts to coordinate local approaches to performance assessment. Starting this year, the four PACE implementing districts—Sanborn Regional, Rochester, Epping, and Souhegan—will administer the Smarter Balanced assessment once in elementary school, once in middle school, and once in high school (in three grades instead of seven). In all other years when students aren’t taking Smarter Balanced assessments, the PACE districts will administer carefully designed common and locally managed “performance assessments” that were developed by the districts themselves and validated at the state level.

Some background: in 2005 the New Hampshire State Board of Education adopted a policy that eliminated seat time as the primary basis for awarding high school credit. This opened the door for school districts to put competency based programs in place at the high school level, a door that few districts walked through during the five years that followed… and a door that many school boards were reluctant to open at all. In the high achieving New Hampshire School District district I led from 2004-11 we already had independent study courses in place that awarded competency-based credit. These courses were available to students who excelled in certain areas and wanted to pursue independent research projects in that area and, on a limited basis, to students who needed a different format for learning. Expanding this concept to all courses was difficult for two reasons: it required more marginally higher staffing than the traditional model and it required a change from the traditional method of grading and grouping of students— a change that could result in lower SAT scores and/or confusion in admissions offices of elite colleges.

I believe the cost differentials could be minimized if not eliminated altogether if a school system adopted competency-based learning across the board and could prepare spreadsheets to illustrate this. But I am not so certain that politicians, school boards, parents, and traditional colleges will be easily persuaded that the abandonment of the Carnegie Unit is feasible. New Hampshire’s experience illustrates how difficult a change like this is. Former State Superintendent Nick Donohue succeeded in getting the State Board to adopt his proposal to abandon “seat time” and a decade later four of the 90+ districts in the State are experimenting with an alternative to standardized testing that is based on the assumptions implicit in that action… and doing so on an experimental basis. How much longer will it take for other districts to join in? This paragraph from Stacy Khadaroo’s Christian Science Monitor article suggests it will take some time:

New Hampshire hopes to slowly scale up the experiment. There are other districts waiting in the wings to switch to the performance-based assessments as early as next year, (Sanborn HS Principal) Mr. Marion says. He’s also aware of a handful of states eager to move in this direction, though he wonders if they might get “skittish” when they find out how much work it’s taken to develop and vet the new assessments.

The combination of gridlocked politicians, sluggish school boards, tradition-bound teachers and parents, and timid leaders will make change a daunting a challenge. The only hope is that the weariness over standardized testing will accelerate the changes students need.


Corporate Welfare’s Link to Parent Dis-Engagement and Underfunding of Schools

April 13, 2015 Leave a comment

Yesterday’s NYTimes featured an article describing the massive number of workers in this country who are drawing government benefits because their employers underpay them, refuse to give them benefits, and work them at irregular times. Not only are these corporations increasing their profits by underpaying their employees and refusing to provide health benefits, they are getting subsidies from state and local governments that effectively erode the tax bases. Oh, and the banks are only too happy to see this happen since these struggling employees incur interest charges on their credit cards in order to pay their bills.

This practice is not only undermining the economy, it is undermining public education. Children in households where parents cannot make ends meet are not having their fundamental needs met… and as this article notes many of these working parents have onerous and unpredictable work schedules making their engagement in the lives of their children an impossibility. To top it off, the reduction in the tax base makes it increasingly difficult for schools to raise the funds THEY need to support these children.

And here’s the kicker: privatization will be presented as the solution to the problem of underfunded schools…. and perversely privatization will work the same way in schools as it works in retail and fast food. Chains will employ at-will adjunct teachers at the lowest wage possible and, like McDonalds did, offer advice to their at-will adjunct staff on how to collect government benefits.


Jill Lepore’s New Yorker Article Full of Great Insights on Inequality

April 12, 2015 Leave a comment

Because I was out of town for nearly a month, I fell behind in reading New Yorker articles and missed the March 16 issue that featured Jill Lepore’s “Annals of Society” article on economic inequality titled “Richer and Poorer“.  The article reviews three recent books on the topic of economic inequality: “Our Kids: the American Dream in Crisis” by Robert Putnam; ““The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power” by Steve Fraser; and, “Inequality: What Can Be Done?,” by Anthony Atkinson– which is scheduled for publication later this spring.

In the article Lepore describes the history of the Gini coefficient, which is the statistical measure used to determine the extent of inequality in a nation and the recent trend in our country where the Gini coefficient is the highest its ever been, meaning that inequality is at its peak. Lepore notes that there is no dispute over the fact that inequality is higher than ever. but there is a dispute over the cause of it and the policies needed to close the gap.

In the course of the article, Lepore contrasts those who use statistics to make a point versus those who use stories to make a point… and she notes that all three books use a narrative as opposed to statistical approach in reporting on the issue of inequality. Why? Using Charles Dickens’ character Thomas Gradgrind as an exemplar of the “numbers man” who favors statistics over stories Lepore writes:

Numbers men are remote and cold of heart, Dickens thought. But, of course, the appeal of numbers lies in their remoteness and coldness. Numbers depersonalize; that remains one of their chief claims to authority, and to a different explanatory force than can be found in, say, a poem. “Quantification is a technology of distance,” as the historian of science Theodore Porter has pointed out. “Reliance on numbers and quantitative manipulation minimizes the need for intimate knowledge and personal trust.” It’s difficult to understand something like income inequality across large populations and to communicate your understanding of it across vast distances without counting. But quantification’s lack of intimacy is also its weakness; it represents not only a gain but also a loss of knowledge.

This resonated with me because it is evident that the use of test results and other impersonal “Big Data” is used to claim authority… and the cold statistical measures depersonalize the work of teachers and schools and “minimize the need for intimate knowledge and personal trust” that is required when one examines the lives of children in schools. The section on Putnam’s book provides several excellent examples of how unequal economics at home result in unequal opportunities for children at school. Putnam’s recommended solutions also resonated, particularly those that are specific to public education:

(Putnam) proposes changes in four realms: family structure, parenting, school, and community. His policy recommendations include expanding the earned-income tax credit and protecting existing anti-poverty programs; implementing more generous parental leaves, better child-care programs, and state-funded preschool; equalizing the funding of public schools, providing more community-based neighborhood schools, and increasing support for vocational high-school programs and for community colleges; ending pay-to-play extracurricular activities in public schools and developing mentorship programs that tie schools to communities and community organizations.

But… as Lepore notes,

All of these ideas are admirable, many are excellent, none are new, and, at least at the federal level, few are achievable. The American political imagination has become as narrow as the gap between rich and poor is wide.

Indeed as she describes Fraser’s dismay at the lack of anger over inequality and Atkinson’s optimistic perspective on actions that could be taken to reduce inequality, Lepore concludes that things are likely to remain as they are because ultimately only Congress can solve the problem and she finds it unlikely that Congress will take any meaningful action on this any time soon:

The growth of inequality isn’t inevitable. But, insofar as Americans have been unable to adopt measures to reduce it, the numbers might seem to suggest that the problem doesn’t lie with how Americans treat one another’s kids, as lousy as that is. It lies with Congress.

The key to change lies with the disenfranchised Millenials who have lost faith in government. Lepore highlights two exemplars of the economic divide: Chelsea whose affluent parents are actively engaged in her school work and aspires to college and David, who’s lived in several dysfunctional family arrangements and is now laid off from a fast food job. She illustrates how inequality corrodes democracy with two short sentences:

Chelsea is interested in politics. David has never voted.

If the Davids of this nation are engaged, inequality will be addressed. If they remain at home on election day, the Gini coefficient will only get worse.

Frank Bruni’s Misguided Hand-Wringing Over Competition

April 12, 2015 Leave a comment

Frank Bruni’s column, “Best, Brightest… and Saddest“, describes a rash of teen suicides in Palo Alto, CA where the pressure to succeed in school is creating mental health problems. Having led a school district with the same demographics as Palo Alto, I am all too familiar with the kinds of problems Mr. Bruni describes in his column. But having read Mr. Bruni’s critiques of public schooling, I feel that he overlooks the root cause of the competitive environment in schools, which is the factory model.

As long as we measure student success and school success based on test scores we will impose stress on students. How can we claim to value the well-being of each child when we promote a competitive grading system that sorts and selects based on comparisons with age cohorts within a school. We have the ability to provide self-paced individualized learning to each student yet we insist on continuing the practice of grouping children in age cohorts and ranking them based on how quickly they learn as compared to their peer group. Our outmoded method of schooling and measurement is creating the pressure that is neither productive for our economy or healthy for our children.

David Brooks’ “Moral Bucket List” Assumes the Abandonment of Capitalist Ideals

April 12, 2015 Leave a comment

As readers of this blog realize, I find David Brooks to be a maddening pundit. He invariably makes several points in his column that I completely agree with but somehow ends up drawing contradictory conclusions from the points he makes. Today’s column, “The Moral Bucket List“, is a case in point.

In the column, which is based on a book he has recently published, Brooks essentially recounts the major tenets of Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings. Indeed, if I had the inclination to do so, I could find quotes from Thich Nhat Hanh that mirror Brooks’ list of “…experiences one should have on the way toward the richest possible inner life”. Yet while Brooks espouses the need for individuals to pursue the kind of inner life Buddhists seek, he remains an unapologetic supporter of free market capitalism and the competitive environment that results from that support.   

To illustrate: Brooks observes that “…our culture and our educational systems spend more time teaching the skills and strategies you need for career success than the qualities you need to radiate (an) inner light. Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.” This is clearly an accurate description of both our culture and our schools. Our culture is based on the capitalist premise that the acquisition of things will make us happy, that happiness comes from the outside and not the inside. Consequently we value our schools based on their ability to prepare students for careers that are financially rewarding and our schools rely on external reward mechanisms to motivate students. If we wanted schools that focus on character development we would eliminate the ranking of students and schools based on test scores and emphasize collaboration over competition. If we wanted a culture that values character over consumption we would have a far different tax structure and far different economic system.