As a middling Facebook user, I was interested to read about a recent study conducted whereby it was demonstrated that readers’ mods were affected by the news feeds they received. Those receiving upbeat news feeds were demonstrably happier than those who received negative news feeds. While many news outlets engaged in hand-wringing over this, Cathy O’Neill aka The Mathbabe was elated:
It’s got everything a case study should have: ethical dilemmas, questionable methodology, sociological implications, and questionable claims, not to mention a whole bunch of media attention and dissection.
By the way, if I sound gleeful, it’s partly because I know this kind of experiment happens on a daily basis at a place like Facebook or Google. What’s special about this experiment isn’t that it happened, but that we get to see the data. And the response to the critiques might be, sadly, that we never get another chance like this, so we have to grab the opportunity while we can.
Of course she’s right about the fact that this kind of study happens daily: it HAS happened for decades in advertising agencies who are trying to find ways to connect with consumers and was a source of deep concern for George Orwell in his analysis of Hitler’s rise to power. I think the study overlooks a paradox of technology: the more media outlets there are the less people are willing to consider another individual or group’s perspective. That led me to make the following comment:
Here’s another hypothesis this study might support: the customization of news feeds has contributed to the polarization of politics in our country. There was a time when there were only three major news sources available to people on a daily basis and the news they provided was governed by a fairness doctrine. The segmentation that began with cable TV has increased with the internet making it possible for people to get, for example, “Christian News”. This segmentation leads to a situation where one’s world view is constantly reinforced making it harder for open-mindedness to prevail.
Her short post has links to the study itself, which was an interesting read. The bottom line from my perspective is that we need to include mindfulness in schools as soon as possible so people can gain a clearer understanding of how their mind works.
The Washington Post reports that despite KS Governor Sam Brownback’s claims to the contrary, the tax cuts he championed are NOT having the impact he claims. As the chart below indicates, KS job growth has lagged behind that of the rest of the country and the effects on public schools have been devastating. Here’s the analysis provided in the article:
Earlier this year, my colleague Niraj Chokshi reported on a Center and Budget Policy Priorities study of Kansas’ cuts. In an unusually frank assessment from the nonpartisan think tank, the study’s authors concluded that “Kansas is a cautionary tale, not a model. As other states recover from the recent recession and turn toward the future, Kansas’ huge tax cuts have left that state’s schools and other public services stuck in the recession, and declining further — a serious threat to the state’s long-term economic vitality. Meanwhile, promises of immediate economic improvement have utterly failed to materialize.”
Every month brings fresh economic news that further validates these findings — job creation in Kansas has remained essentially flat since last fall, even as employment increased in the rest of the country.
And meanwhile, our political leaders are turning a blind eye to this “cautionary tale“, insisting on ever increasing cuts to public education in order to reduce taxes while at the same time proclaiming the need for us to improve education to help improve our nation’s “long term economic vitality”. The chart below should be sent to every legislator in the country who makes the bogus claim that lower taxes will increase employment:
Years ago when I began my career as a Superintendent in the 1980s there was a small group of Superintendents who districts hired to “clean house” and to “run schools like a business”. When they were appointed everyone in the district knew their “playbook”: they’d fire people knowing that the board would support them, cut the budgets by looking for imprudent spending that was “baked into” the budget, and drive hard bargains at the negotiating table. In all cases, though, the Board expected them to play by the rules in place, respond to the parents, be respectful to teachers, and use public funds prudently and wisely. In the 1970s and 1980s this was the way business operated and while it was often unsettling for teachers there was some legal mechanism in place for them to seek relief be it through their union or the State’s Labor Relations Board.
Nowadays there is a “new breed” of school superintendents who districts hire to “clean house” and “run schools like a business”… and the paradigmatic “new breed” Superintendent, Paul Vallas, is described in detail in this Common Dreams article by Black Agenda Report writer Bruce Dixon. Unfortunately for the public today, “running schools like a business” means privatization and outsourcing which, in turn, mean meeting the needs of shareholders instead of children. While there is no evidence whatsoever that privatization improves the overall performance of school districts, it capitalizes on the misguided belief that the private sector can always run things better than the public sector… this despite the recent travails of GM, the serial failures of the banking industry, and the devastating effect that outsourcing has had on our economy.
Dixon describes how Democrats and Republicans alike have bought into the notion that privatization is the best way to solve the problems facing public education, and concludes with this paragraph:
We should never forget that the idea that all children in a society deserve quality education is historically a new and revolutionary idea. Even more revolutionary is the notion that students, parents, communities and teachers ought to design and control every aspect of those educational processes. There is a struggle of historic proportions going on over the question of education, and ultimately all of us will have to take a side. Jerry Brown, Andrew Cuomo, Michelle Rhee, Barack Obama, Rahm Emanuel and Chainsaw Paul Vallas are on one side. What side are we on?
I think the notion that there are “two sides” is too simplistic. As the recent New Yorker article on the Newark schools indicted a continuation of the status quo in Newark would have resulted in the perpetuation of patronage assignments that did not help children in the classrooms and antiquated teaching methods and administrative oversight that failed to provide opportunities for better learning. Public education needs to change and improve and it needs to be exempt from politics… but the kinds of changes imposed by businessmen with spreadsheets overlooks the human side of schools and schools are first and foremost humanistic enterprises and NOT profit centers or “branch offices”. In short, if you are opposed to the “side” of the politicians and “chainsaw” superintendents you are not necessarily on the “side” of the status quo… because there are clearly some aspects of the status quo that need to be improved.