Children’s Moral Power Can Challenge Corporate Power on Climate Crisis

April 18, 2019 Leave a comment

The children led the civil rights marches in Birmingham Alabama because their parents could not walk off the low-wage jobs. Today children are leading environmental marches because their parents are trapped by their own mental models. They cannot imagine a world without the convenience of cars, a world where energy does not come from fossil fuels, and a world where the government regulations for clean air and clean water have teeth. We should listen to their voices of idealism.

Source: Children’s Moral Power Can Challenge Corporate Power on Climate Crisis

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In an Ideal Universe, Brooklyn’s Community Driven Integration Plans Would go Viral

April 17, 2019 Leave a comment

Earlier this week, Chalkbeat blogger Christine Viega wrote a post describing how the grassroots efforts of parents in Brooklyn District 15 and Manhattan’s District 3 resulted in a new method of assigning students to middle schools, a method that breaks through the economic and racial segregation that currently exists. Titled “Two NYC districts embarked on middle school integration plans. Early results show they may be making a difference,” the article describes how a team of open minded parents on district advisory committees made a difference in the way fifth grade students are assigned to schools. And that difference?

Families in both districts apply to middle schools rather than being assigned a neighborhood school based on where they live.

Encompassing brownstone neighborhoods such as Park Slope and immigrant enclaves such as Sunset Park, District 15 undertook what is probably the most dramatic integration plan approved yet by the city. This year, the district’s 11 middle schools eliminated screens — selective admissions criteria that allow schools to pick students based on factors such as test scores, report card grades, and interviews.

Instead, families applied to the schools of their choice and admissions were determined by a lottery, with preference for 52 percent of seats given to students who come from low-income families, are learning English as a new language, or are homeless.The aim is for all schools in the district to enroll a similar share of needy students. Since race and ethnicity are tightly tied to economic status, the hope is that the schools will become more diverse on a range of measures.

A lottery system is imperfect, but it greatly increases the probability that the schools in Districts 3 and 15 will reflect the composition of students who reside in ALL the neighborhoods that comprise those districts and not be based on the racial and economic segregation that results from gentrification of some neighborhoods while others remain economically challenged and racially segregated.

The article details how this change is playing out in the more desirable schools where the percentage of free and reduced lunch students and the percentage of minority students are increasing based on the assignments thus far. From my perspective, it is heartening to see those parents who seek diversity being heard over those who advance arguments that “merit” should determine placement… especially when “merit” is based on “…factors such as test scores, report card grades, and interviews”. When all children might be assigned to ANY school, it changes the thinking about how funds should be spent, as underscored by a quote from a District 3 parent that concludes the post:

“I’m really happy that we are moving closer to the district average (in terms of racial and economic demographics), which is part of the goal, and that we’re seeing movement at the high demand schools, and at the lower demand schools — which is crucial,” said Kristen Berger, a member of the District 3 Community Education Council who pushed for the admissions changes. “The point of this complex system is that we’re not just building one great school but we’re working as a system across the district.”

That is the kind of spirit needed in the 35+ states where lawsuits are pending because of inequitable funding formulas. In NH, as in NYC, the point is not to build “one great school” but to build a system of great schools… and to accomplish that funding will need to be equitable.

LeBron James Supports Public Education by Supporting Teachers AND Parents

April 16, 2019 Leave a comment

Unlike most celebrities who claim to support public education in an effort to help disadvantaged children, NBA superstar LeBron James is different kind of education philanthropist. LeBron James is walking the talk by supporting a public school in his hometown of Akron OH called I Promise governed by a democratically elected local school school board, a school for designed for students who “...were identified as the worst performers in the Akron public schools and branded with behavioral problems. Some as young as 8 were considered at risk of not graduating.” And because Mr. James was once one of those poor performers himself, he realizes that schools who serve poor children need more time to learn and their parents need help as well. As a result, Mr. James is providing supplementary funding for before and after school programs, programs when schools are closed, free provisions for parents, and a training program for parents to earn their GEDs. After a year… the results are coming in and, while I am no fan of the metrics they are using, the school is showing promise.

The academic results are early, and at 240, the sample size of students is small, but the inaugural classes of third and fourth graders at I Promise posted extraordinary results in their first set of district assessments. Ninety percent met or exceeded individual growth goals in reading and math, outpacing their peers across the district.

“These kids are doing an unbelievable job, better than we all expected,” Mr. James said in a telephone interview hours before a game in Los Angeles for the Lakers. “When we first started, people knew I was opening a school for kids. Now people are going to really understand the lack of education they had before they came to our school. People are going to finally understand what goes on behind our doors.”

What distinguishes I Promise is it’s implicit acknowledgement that parent engagement is crucially important and poor parents have complications that exceed those of their affluent counterparts. Because of that, Mr. James offers funding to support the parents as fellas the teachers and children:

The school is unusual in the resources and attention it devotes to parents, which educators consider a key to its success. Mr. James’s foundation covers the cost of all expenses in the school’s family resource center, which provides parents with G.E.D. preparation, work advice, health and legal services, and even a quarterly barbershop.

Another distinguishing factor of I Promise is the pool of students it serves:

I Promise students were among those identified by the district as performing in the 10th to 25th percentile on their second-grade assessments. They were then admitted through a lottery.

“These were the children where you went and talked with their old teachers, and they said, ‘This will never work,’” Dr. Campbell said. “We said give them to us.”

They are called the “Chosen Ones,” an ode to the headline that donned Mr. James’s first Sports Illustrated cover when he was a junior in high school, and which he later had tattooed across his shoulder blades.

And the I Promise school DOES get more money, money that is used to underwrite the parent resource center noted above and a resource center for students and teachers as well:

But the I Promise School was a recognition that the foundation’s community services were not enough. They needed to reach students earlier. They secured an old district office building that served as a holding place for schools in transition, poured in $2 million and counting for improvements and reopened it in seven weeks. The school opened in July 2018 and is expected to serve 720 students in third through eighth grade by 2022.

The foundation’s support affords I Promise more resources than the average school, but Ms. Davis, a veteran principal in the district, said the school values things that no money could buy.

“It doesn’t take money to build relationships,” she said. “It doesn’t take money for you to teach students how to love.”

This past year some former teammates have criticized LeBron James for failing to give them the credit they deserve for contributing to championships he won and for pointing fingers at them when the team suffered losses. But LeBron James’ reaction to the success of his school counters that image:

While Mr. James called the school “the coolest thing that I’ve done in my life thus far,” he said he could take credit for only a small part of what was happening.

“I had the vision of wanting to give back to my community. The people around every day are helping that vision come to life,” he said. “Half the battle is trying to engage them and show that there’s always going to be somebody looking out for them.”

The article described a single parent who was disengaged and had given up but now felt that someone from her hometown was looking out for her. In an ideal democracy, that is the notion every parent should have… that her neighbors are looking out her well-being. Nowadays, though, disengaged parents have a different sense: that her neighbors are looking down on her and blaming her for the poor performance of her children.

The veteran principal in Akron is right in saying that “It doesn’t take money to build relationships (or) for you to teach students how to love.” But it does take money to provide the kinds of parent programs and expanded community services that LeBron James is providing his chosen ones, the children whose old teachers had projected as drop outs and troublemakers.

The Emerson Collective’s Re-Boot of High School Sounds Eerily Familiar… and Impossible to Scale Without a Change in Metrics

April 12, 2019 Leave a comment

Rebooting High School“, a recent Axios article by Kaveh Waddell, describes the efforts of XQ Schools, an affiliate of the Emerson Collective to devise a plan for high schools that teaches “future proof” skills. I completely agree with the direction XQ schools are heading as described by Ms. Waddell:

High schoolers are often being taught skills that will soon be handed over to machines, and they’re missing out on more valuable ones.

  • “The current system was created to develop a large body of people who can perform repetitive tasks in a strict hierarchy,” says Scott Looney, head of Hawken School in Ohio.
  • “We’re preparing young people for jobs that won’t exist,” says Russlynn Ali, CEO of the education nonprofit XQ Institute and a former assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Education.

Education research has largely overlooked high school, Ali tells Axios — but that’s started to change. Among a new spate of efforts:

  • A new teaching method at Summit Shasta, a charter school just outside San Francisco, where students choose the skills they want to focus on — pegged to their college and career aspirations. (Read about my visit to Summit Shasta.)
  • A curriculum revamp at Lakeside School in Seattle, in which faculty and students are developing a list of future-proof skills they want to teach.
  • A “mastery transcript under development by a group of top high schools — Hawken’s Looney is the project’s founder — that measures a student’s skills, habits and knowledge as an alternative to the typical list of letter grades.

Some experts liken the potential upheaval from automation to the economic changes that sparked an education revolution more than a century ago, which made high school the norm for American students.

  • The High School Movement, which gathered steam in the 1910s, was the result of two big developments, according to Harvard scholars Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz.
  • The first change was an increased financial return to additional years of education; the second was increased demand for more specialized skills.
  • Those factors may soon be back in play, as companies begin demanding “soft skills” like creativity, adaptability, and oral communication.

As one who entered public education in 1970, I find the descriptions of the 18 schools eerily familiar. They sound like the kind of high schools envisioned by true education reformers like Philadelphia Public Schools Superintendent Mark Shedd, the kinds of schooling advocated by Ivan Illich and A.S. Neill, and the kinds of high schools my classmates in the Ford Foundation program at the University of Pennsylvania dreamed of creating.

Now, nearly fifty years after beginning my career in public education and dreaming of Schools Without Walls or De-schooling Society or schools that meet the unique needs of each child, I am reading the profiles of 18 such schools underwritten by a Foundation funded by the estate of Apple’s billionaire founder whose corporation dodged $40,000,000,000 in taxes.

If businesses and politicians wanted to transform high schools, the first step would be to create and aggressively promote a new set of metrics to assess students, schools and colleges. As described below, our current methods of measurement reinforce the current system that was designed to “develop a large body of people who can perform repetitive tasks in a strict hierarchy”. These metrics compel schools to focus on preparing students to pass tests, a skill that might get them into college but will not prepare them for a future of fast-changing jobs that rely increasingly on interpersonal skills and creativity and less on the accumulation of knowledge that can readily be accessed by machines. Here’s how our current system of metrics undercuts the development of “future proof” skills by focussing relentlessly on test scores:

  • Because K-12 students are assigned numeric or letter grades based on how well they absorb content in a fixed time frame they are not assessed on their skills or habits or the “future proof” soft skills.
  • Because the metrics used to measure K-12 public are based primarily on standardized test scores, public school teachers focus their attention on boosting those test scores at the expense of helping students develop soft skills like creativity, adaptability, and oral communication.
  • Because colleges and universities have effectively adopted the US News and World Report’s metrics they place an increased emphasis on the SAT scores, GPAs, and class ranks of the applicants and especially the entering class. This, in turn, puts pressure on students to focus on improving their test scores and GPAs reinforcing a vicious circle that in no way addresses the “future proof” soft skills the experimental high schools emphasize.

My thought: if the Emerson Collective wanted to REALLY make a difference in ALL high schools across the country, they could take the $40,000,000,000 saved by dodging taxes and invest it in purchasing ETS and the US News and World Report and, after the acquisition, change the metrics used to measure schools and colleges and universities. As the aphorism says: “What Gets Measured Gets Done”… and right now what is getting measured is not what is important for students to know in the future.

 

Standardized Tests, “Failing Schools” and the Emerging Un-Enlightenment

April 11, 2019 Leave a comment

I read “Trump’s Most Worrisome Legacy” by economist Joseph Stiglitz’s in yesterday’s Common Dreams and got the chills he hoped to elicit as a result. The legacy that created a knot in Stiglitz’s (and my) stomach is this: President Donald Trump is not interested in seeking the truth.

One section in Mr. Stiglitz’s essay, an overview of impact of the Scottish Enlightenment, was especially thought provoking:

Adam Smith tried to (explain the basis for America’s wealth) in his classic 1776 book The Wealth of Nations. For centuries, Smith noted, standards of living had been stagnant; then, toward the end of the eighteenth century, incomes start to soar. Why?

Smith himself was a leading light of the great intellectual movement known as the Scottish Enlightenment. The questioning of established authority that followed the earlier Reformation in Europe forced society to ask: How do we know the truth? How can we learn about the world around us? And how can and should we organize our society?

From the search for answers to these questions arose a new epistemology, based on the empiricism and skepticism of science, which came to prevail over the forces of religion, tradition, and superstition.Over time, universities and other research institutions were established to help us judge truth and discover the nature of our world. Much of what we take for granted today – from electricity, transistors, and computers to lasers, modern medicine, and smartphones – is the result of this new disposition, undergirded by basic scientific research (most of it financed by government).

The absence of royal or ecclesiastical authority to dictate how society should be organized to ensure that things worked out well, or as well as they could, meant that society had to figure it out for itself. But devising the institutions that would ensure society’s wellbeing was a more complicated matter than discovering the truths of nature.In general, one couldn’t conduct controlled experiments.

Mr. Stiglitz then describes how our country devised institutions that ensured things would work out as well as they could… and described how Mr. Trump has undermined those same institutions by emphasizing the accumulation of wealth over the search for truth. He writes:

But what concerns me most is Trump’s disruption of the institutions that are necessary for the functioning of society. Trump’s “MAGA” (Make America Great Again) agenda is, of course, not about restoring the moral leadership of the United States. It embodies and celebrates unbridled selfishness and self-absorption. MAGA is about economics.

But I have news for Mr. Stiglitz: MAGA’s embrace of “unbridled selfishness and self-absorption” and roots in “economics” reflects of our culture’s perspective on schooling. The purpose of getting an education in America is not to find the answer to questions like “How do we know the truth? How can we learn about the world around us? And how can and should we organize our society?” The purpose of getting an education in America is about scoring well on standardized tests that value convergent thinking; about promoting oneself over others in order to gain entry into a prestigious college; and, ultimately, about earning a lot of money. These are the values we are inculcating in students and have inculcated in them for at least two decades of test-based “reform” that is the basis for NCLB, RTTT, and now ESSA. And while Mr. Trump’s MAGA movement “celebrates unbridled selfishness and self-absorption” and places the accumulation of wealth on a higher pedestal, I believe the MAGA movement has its roots in the message we’ve given to students for decades that the primary purpose of schooling is to earn a lot of money.

It is revealing that several reports indicate that the tech billionaires do not enroll their children in elite private schools or affluent public schools: they enroll them in Waldorf Schools whose goal is “…to inspire life-long learning in all students and to enable them to fully develop their unique capacities.” Standardized tests are not given in Waldorf Schools… and their “success” is not measured by their enrollment in a prestigious college or their lifelong earnings. They are more interested in the questions posed by Adam Smith: “How do we know the truth? How can we learn about the world around us? And how can and should we organize our society?

 

 

Billionaires Philanthropists NOT the Solution to Improving Public Services

April 10, 2019 Leave a comment

Business Insider recently published Anand Giradhardas’ reaction to billionaire investor Ray Dalio’s acknowledgement on 60 Minutes that his cohort should be paying more taxes… and it was pointed without being scathing. The one section of Giradharadas’ critique that resonated with me was his reaction to the news that Dalio and his wife donated $100,000,000 to Connecticut public schools:

“It is fine to donate money to Connecticut. But Dalio’s personal preferences should have zero influence on how the money is spent. This is the problem with the public-private-partnership model he venerates: It puts some rich guy and the State of Connecticut on an equal footing to negotiate a plan to enhance the general welfare. Why? You wouldn’t ask an arsonist to lead the firefighting brigade, and you shouldn’t ask those who have benefited most from a rigged system, and who have the most to lose from genuine reform, to lead the reformation of the system.”

While Mr. Dalio’s $100,000,000 “donation” to public education is commendable, it is roughly 15% of what is needed to close the gap in needed capital outlay if that state hoped to close the gap as determined in a 2016 study by a consortium of school construction organizations. As noted frequently in this post, the targeted contributions by philanthropists usually DON’T match those identified by state or local school boards. They are appreciated… but having every billionaire pay their fair share of taxes would be even more appreciated and beneficial to public education.

And here’s the ultimate bottom line: we will never reform schools until we reform the economic system that created them.

 

Extra-rational Motivation vs. Material Interests in Capitalism… and in Schooling

April 10, 2019 Leave a comment

A recent Evonomics blog post by Peter Turchin, “Does Capitalism Kill Cooperation?”,  examines our current economy and describes the corrosive effects of competition and the benefits of collaboration. At the end of his analysis, he concludes that innovation and the resulting economic growth that stems from innovation is NOT the result of competition– the desire to win—  but rather the result of “extra-rational” motivation.

He opens his post with this description of the current mindset of economists:

Milton Friedman, of course, always argued that economic agents should strictly follow their material interests;there is no place for “extra-rational motives” in business. Most economists today feel the same way, although few are willing to state it as boldly as Friedman did.

Mr. Turchin acknowledges that in many– if not most— cases people make economic decisions based on optimization: they want to get the most value for the lowest cost possible. But he goes on to note that at the systems level capitalism operates differently, emphasizing that capitalism has been successful as a system because it promotes innovation:

But capitalism is not just about buying and selling things—people have been doing commerce for millennia before capitalism. Surely the amazing capacity of capitalism to transform knowledge into innovation, and innovation into economic growth is one of the central of its attributes? So let’s talk about such successful innovation hotspots, as the Silicon Valley. What are the motivations driving successful entrepreneurs within such hotspots?

Mr. Turchin then answers this question using the findings of Victor Hwang and Greg Horowitz whose recent book The Rainforest: The Secret to Building the Next Silicon Valley examines the characteristics of regions where innovation is prevalent. And here’s what they found:

A central theme that recurs throughout the book is that successful entrepreneurs, and the successful innovation systems in which they operate, such as the Silicon Valley or Route 128 in Massachusetts, are the antithesis of the rational businessperson postulated by Branko (a Friedman acolyte) one who is solely motivated by money. In fact, “Rainforests [their term for successful innovation systems] depend on people not behaving like rational actors.” “For Rainforests to be sustainable, greed must be restrained.” “Predatory venture capitalists might win a few in the short run, but they do not last long in the business and are unable to build lasting firms.”

Extra-rational motivations—those that transcend the classical divide between rational and irrational—are not normally considered critical drivers of economic value-creation. …  These motivations include the thrill of competition, human altruism, a thirst for adventure, a joy of discovery and creativity, a concern for future generations, and a desire for meaning in one’s life, among many others.Our work over the years has led us to conclude that these types of motivations are not just “nice to have.” They are, in fact, “must have” building blocks of the Rainforest.

Hwang and Horowitz identify four recommendations to create the “Rainforests” that result in innovation:

First, diversity, which brings people with very different knowledge and skills together, such as a scientist, a venture capitalist, an engineer, a sales specialist, and an administrator (a CEO).

Second, extra-rational motivations, because self-regarding rational actors are simply unable to cooperate to launch a successful innovation enterprise.

Third, social trust, because successful cooperation is the only way to beat the terrible odds against a successful innovation startup, and cooperation requires trust.

Fourth, a set of social norms that regulate the behavior of various cooperating agents, and willingness both to follow them and to enforce these rules by various sanctions.

After listing these recommendations, Mr. Turchin concludes his post with this:

In other words, Hwang and Horowitt describe a system that uses precisely the same components to bring about cooperation that have been studied in other settings (a foraging group, a military troop, a religious sect, and a state), and in the abstract, by cultural evolutionists.

The Rainforest, then, provides ample empirical material to reject the theory that economic growth, which is based on innovation, is moved by self-interested rational agents. But—and it was one of the real eye-openers for me—it also explains why this is so.

The notion that extra-rational motivations are “must haves” in the Rainforest and the four recommendation offered by Mr. Hwang and Horowitt resonate with me. And they underscore my belief that our public school “system” is based on the wrong premises. Indeed, they currently operate on the opposite set up. They are not diverse, they focus on competition and individual performance over collaboration and group performance, they have rules imposed with no input from students or, in some cases, from staff members, and— as a result— there is no effort to create social norms based on consensus.

Politicians, parents, businessmen and voters all seek to have schools that create innovative and caring graduates who can function effectively in our economy and our democracy. If we want that end, we might consider following the recommendations for creating a “Rainforest” instead of staying with our current system that sorts and selects based on a factory model.