Archive for November, 2012

Skills Gap or Wage Gap? Either Way, Blame the Schools

November 26, 2012 Comments off

The NYTimes business writer Adam Davidson’s latest article lays out a detailed explanation of how the so-called “skills gap” is a classic case of employers and prospective employees are acting in their rational self-interest are yielding a result that is, in the words of Howard Wial, an economist at the Brookings Institution who specializes in manufacturing employment, “… not socially optimal.”

Here’s the situation: employers claim that they can’t find “skilled workers” but when one looks into their problem more deeply it is evident that that can’t find skilled workers who are willing to work for, say, $10 to $15 dollars per hour. Students, on the other hand, spend lots of money to go into debt to learn the skills the employers desire only to find that the wages offered won’t begin to pay their bills. The result: they find work as branch managers at McDonalds or in retail where the wages are higher.

Howard Wial offers this explanation of what is happening:

In earlier decades… manufacturing workers could expect decent-paying jobs that would last a long time, and it was easy to match worker supply and demand. Since then, with the confluence of computers, increased trade and weakened unions, the social contract has collapsed, and worker-employer matches have become harder to make. Now workers and manufacturers “need to recreate a system” — a new social contract in which their incentives are aligned. 

Davidson elaborates on this:

In retrospect, the post-World War II industrial model did a remarkably good job of supporting a system in which an 18-year-old had access to on-the-job training that was nearly certain to pay off over a long career. That system had its flaws — especially a shared complacency that left manufacturers and laborers unprepared for global trade and technological change. Manufacturers, of course, have responded over the past 20 years by dismantling it.

Having reported that manufacturers chose to dismantle a system where they provided high school graduates with access to middle class wages and training, the ends with this preposterous conclusion:

…this isn’t a narrow problem facing the manufacturing industry. The so-called skills gap is really a gap in education, and that affects all of us.

So it seems that Davidson’s new social contract is this: prospective workers need to pay to get skills that will land them sub-minimum pay and possibly obsolescence if the job they are trained for can be done by a robot or someone overseas. Sounds a lot like feudalism to me.


November 26, 2012 Comments off

I am in the middle reading “A Minimum Tax for the Rich” of a NYTimes article by Warren Buffett debunking the argument that increasing taxes on the wealthy will cause them to flee the country or diminish their investments… and these paragraphs stopped me dead in my tracks:

A huge tail wind from tax cuts has pushed us (the top 400 wage earners) along. In 1992, the tax paid by the 400 highest incomes in the United States (a different universe from the Forbes list) averaged 26.4 percent of adjusted gross income. In 2009, the most recent year reported, the rate was 19.9 percent. It’s nice to have friends in high places.

The group’s average income in 2009 was $202 million — which works out to a “wage” of $97,000 per hour, based on a 40-hour workweek. (I’m assuming they’re paid during lunch hours.) Yet more than a quarter of these ultrawealthy paid less than 15 percent of their take in combined federal income and payroll taxes. Half of this crew paid less than 20 percent. And — brace yourself — a few actually paid nothing.

As a former math teacher I can quickly determine that $20.2 million yields a $9700/hour salary, and $2.02 million yields $970/hour…. I think these folks could contribute more than 20% of their income toward income and federal taxes…

Trickle Down Budget Cuts Redux

November 25, 2012 Comments off

In several earlier posts I have written about how the trickle down economy really works: the federal government enacts tax cuts and shifts the responsibility for either cutting services or raising taxes to the States who, in turn, shift the costs to local government. The result is that more and more of the tough decisions are made at the State and local level and, because the tax bases vary more wildly as you go from the federal-to-the-State-to-the-local level, there is increasing inequality.

Today’s NYTimes features an article that indicates State governors and big city mayors are now wise to this game and, consequently, are seeking a place at the table when the federal government begins its formal deliberations on the so-called fiscal cliff. They want to be heard because in some cases the federal government is asking them to assume responsibility for programs that they are incapable of managing.

“The main message is that it’s important to remember that, on a lot of areas of governance, we’re partners — and that these issues can’t be solved simply by cost-shifting to the states, because the states aren’t really in a position to do all that,” said Gov. Jack Markell of Delaware, chairman of the National Governors Association. “We just want to make sure that we have a voice as these decisions are being made.”

But there is a long history of the federal government’s giving short shrift to the needs of states and cities — by making cuts in federal aid that forced service cuts or tax increases at the local level, or by passing laws requiring localities to take expensive actions without giving them the money to do so.

Here’s a request: find out how the cuts will affect your home town and your home state… and if you think that you can do without these services rest easy. If, on the other hand, you think the services are essential and can best be delivered by the federal government, let your legislator know that ASAP. If you think the services can best be delivered by the state or local governments, be prepared to see your State or local taxes increase— because you WILL be paying for the services one way or the other.

School Attendance Zones and Equity

November 25, 2012 1 comment

An article in today’s NYTimes described the rancorous hearings going on in Park Slope and 13 other areas where school attendance zones are being re-drawn. Having served as a Superintendent in two large districts I can attest to the fact that NOTHING is more controversial than redrawing attendance lines… and nothing is more difficult that attempting to achieve socio-economic balance in schools through redistricting.

The reason attendance zones need to be modified from time to time is that populations shift within large districts as some neighborhoods age (i.e. homes that once had families become empty-nests), new neighborhoods are formed (i.e. new construction occurs in a cornfield) or old neighborhoods are reclaimed (i.e. an urban neighborhood is gentrified). As the newly appointed Superintendent in a Maryland county district, I had two re-districting experiences. The first one happened in the first year of my ten-years there. We needed to realign boundaries to optimize the use of existing facilities because of demographic shifts. Some middle class neighborhoods were losing elementary age students and some low income neighborhoods were gaining elementary age students. As a result lower income schools were over-crowded while adjacent middle class schools were under-utilized. Part of the adjustment of boundaries I recommended was to move a housing project from an over-crowded “city school” to an under-utilized “suburban school” that was actually closer to the housing project than the “city school”. I saw this re-assignment as a way to evenly distribute Title 1 students while making more efficient use of both buildings. In addition to this shift, I recommended other changes in other parts of the county where in two instances I unwittingly recommended the merging of neighborhoods that were demographically similar and geographically proximate but had historic animosity toward each other. After several contentious public hearings the plan passed with some minor adjustments… but the basic effort to achieve parity in terms of Title 1 students was accomplished. Several years later we needed to open a new elementary school in an area where development resulted in an increase in student population. Knowing that redistricting was a politically charged process and forecasting imbalances in HS populations in the near future, I recommended a comprehensive plan that included an adjustment to high school that would balance overall enrollments and achieve greater parity in students qualifying for free and reduced lunch. The Board tabled this recommendation for two reasons: overcrowding was not an urgent need at the HS level at that time; and, the affluent parents who would be moved from a distant rural HS forecasted to overflow to a closer urban HS with empty classrooms mounted a campaign to maintain the status quo. The most contentious part of the elementary redistricting plan for the newly completed school was the fact that the new school would merge newer more affluent subdivisions with some low income neighborhoods from the west, all in an effort to alleviate overcrowding in elementary schools in the eastern section of the county.

The bottom line lesson from this process: affluent parents want to have their children attend schools that are composed of children with similar backgrounds even if it means they are attending schools that are overcrowded. A corollary lesson: if children of affluent parents are attending an economically diverse school by choice and are happy with the environment there, those parents do NOT want their children to attend a different school under any circumstances— even if the school is brand new and has smaller class sizes!

Given the contentiousness and political capital that must be spent to redistrict or legislate socio-economic parity policy makers might consider investing in technology in less affluent schools. As the previous post implies, used effectively technology COULD be an equalizer…

Education as a Self-Organizing System

November 25, 2012 Comments off

My niece in PA works as a technologist in a public school and is a Facebook friend. Like me, she is frustrated that public schools have not figured out how to take full advantage of technology. Indeed, given that she is even MORE aware of the possibilities and still has many years of work in front of her, she is probably DOUBLY frustrated.

Last night she posted the following: Doing home work on a Saturday night sucks, but worth it when I find something as cool as this! What did she find? A TED talk posted on the BBC webpage entitled “The Child Driven Education”. The synopsis of the talk follows:

Education scientist Sugata Mitra tackles one of the greatest problems of education: the best teachers and schools don’t exist where they’re needed most. In a series of real-life experiments from New Delhi to South Africa to Italy, he gave kids self-supervised access to the web and saw results that could revolutionise how we think about teaching. Talk recorded 15 July 2010.

Two aphorisms included in his talk indicate the general theory:

  • Children will learn to do what they want to learn to do
  • If children have interest, education happens (from an interview with Arthur Clarke)

These quotes resonate with me because I believe that all students have an innate desire to learn and schools should reinforce that desire instead of directing that desire. Mitra’s means of reinforcing the desire was to use the “grandmother method” of coaching self-directed learning teams. Instead of having a content driven teacher telling children that their answers are right, he has a grandmother who has no knowledge of pedagogy or content egging the students on by expressing wonder at how well the children are doing, the same way a loving grandmother does.

Mitra also believes that children learn more and retain the learning longer when they work in groups. He organized the classroom he monitored into groups of four children and assigned the groups broad concepts to master. At the conclusion of the work he assessed them and found that the individuals in these self-regulated groups learned as much as students in traditional classrooms. When a traditional teacher challenged the results by asking if “deep learning” took place (e.g. learning that would be retained) he accepted the challenge and administered a different version of the assessment months later and found that the students held onto the concepts even better than those taught traditionally. His theory: when students learn the information through discussion it stays with them longer than when it is “fed” to them.

The talk also described work done in India where desperately poor students who had never used computers before worked in small self-organized groups to master material presented in English, which was not their native tongue.

So… why aren’t US public schools using technology in this way? Because we are stuck with the mental model of schooling being analogous to a factory where we take raw material and mold it into a finished product… a mental model that is reinforced with our testing regimen based on age-based grouping of students. The fastest way to break the mold— to go beyond factory schools into self-organized and self-paced learning— would be to replace the use of standardized tests with the use of personalized learning plans.

And what will happen if we don’t do this in our public school systems? Younger tech savvy teachers like my niece, who are frustrated by the pace of change in public education will be drawn to charter schools that embrace the use of technology and those charter schools, be they for profit or non-profit, will increase their market share by attracting parents who see their children stymied by a system that feeds them a curriculum designed to increase test scores instead of a curriculum that quenches their thirst for learning.

Privatization Fails in Dayton

November 24, 2012 Comments off

As one who believes that privatization of public education is not the way to fix “failing schools”, I was heartened to see that the Thomas P. Fordham think tank reached the same conclusion after studying the failure of Edison Learning in Dayton Ohio. After a ten year run in the Dayton School district, the Fordham Institute concluded:

The need to provide a quality alternative to Dayton public schools in high-poverty neighborhoods hasn’t gone away. But the naïve or heady or uninformed notion – pick your adjective – that stubbornly poor test scores can be dramatically improved if only business acumen is thrown at the problem has been painfully discredited.

To their credit, the Fordham Institute– advocates of privatization for decades– sought an objective and insightful review of Edison Learning’s failure to improve schools and the experienced education reporter they contracted with, Ellen Belcher, delivered a no holds barred analysis of what went wrong in Dayton and what broader lessons can be learned from the experience in that district.

One of the hard lessons is this: when a for profit enterprise takes over the operation of anything the profit motive trumps any other motive. The profit motive’s impact on Edison was summed up thusly:

(Former Executive Director Doug) Mangen said that when he joined the board seven years after he had been involved in helping select Edison, the company had changed. The goal was no longer reinventing urban education “but how do we maximize profit.”

“The whole mindset of ‘whatever it takes’ wasn’t there anymore,” Mangen said.

That is, the focus shifted from students to profits. Is this a surprise? It was to Chester Finn, one of the leading Fordham Institute thinkers:

An assistant secretary of education under former President Ronald Reagan, Finn said he has become “cynical” about the for-profit model in education. “Shareholder return ends up trumping the best interests of students,” he said. Having watched education management companies for 20 years, “Most of the models I admire today are run by non-profit groups.”

Edison also failed because they had a one-size-fits-all model that required teachers to cover specific topics within an inflexible timetable that was linked to the tests used to measure school performance. They also found that student transience posed a challenge– something that works against ANY model of “school performance”  that is linked to student achievement.

One of the lessons learned is the need to afford teachers more voice in operating schools and the need to focus on individual student performance. But many in the enterprise still fail to see the need to work collaboratively with social service agencies providing, instead hanging onto the belief that if the best teachers and best administrators are brought into a school they can turn it around despite the challenges inherent in high poverty schools. Finn, for example, asserts “…there is ample evidence in Ohio and elsewhere that high-poverty schools can produce excellent results when the right school leader and teachers are hired” and the hiring of several Teach For America staff members was cited as evidence that Dayton schools are now on the right track.

Here’s the real truth: money matters. Children raised in households where there is no money tend to move from low-rent apartment to low-rent-apartment, wonder where their next meal is going to come from, and hope they’ll be warm when the winter comes. For students in those circumstances, the best and most dedicated teachers and administrators can help… but only to a limited extent. We need to do more to level the playing field for those children.



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Everyone Teaches Reading in High School

November 24, 2012 Comments off

A HS English teacher, Sarah Mosle, wrote an op ed piece in yesterday’s NYTimes bemoaning the fact that the common core guidelines recommended that “…70 percent of the 12th grade curriculum… consist of nonfiction titles.”  She reported one former educator reaction as throwing out Shakespeare in favor of  “memos, technical manuals and menus.” In response I wrote the following comment, which was selected as a “NYTimes Pick”:

The Common Core is intended to underscore the fact that ALL teachers teach “reading”… If teachers worked in teams at the secondary level and coordinated their assignments there is no reason why “English” teachers would have to change their assignments: after all, they constitute 20% of the student’s schedule if a student is taking five courses. The math, science, social studies and elective teachers, though, may need to be more purposeful in assigning reading.

Teaching “subjects” is part of the Factory School model, and Ms. Mosle is unwittingly reinforcing the Factory School model by thinking that “reading” is relegated to English teachers and “math”, “science”, and “social studies” are relegated to their respective silos. The Factory Model also reinforces the aphorism that elementary teachers teach students while secondary teachers teach subjects. In the Factory Model, both sets of teachers provide normative instruction instead of individualized instruction. In this day and age of endless choices of breakfast cereals, coffees, and even toilet paper parents expect schools to tailor instruction to meet the needs of their child…. and they should be astonished to think that reading instruction ends when the child leaves English class.

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