Archive for October, 2018

A New Digital Divide Emerges as Affluent Families Scale Back on Screen Time

October 31, 2018 Comments off

Over the past six years I have written countless posts on the adverse impact of the digital divide on children raised in poverty and/or children raised in parts of the country where high speed internet is not readily available. But now, with the widespread use of cell phones and an increase in the use of computers in classrooms of all socio-economic levels, a new digital divide is emerging: children raised by affluent parents are spending less time in front of screens that children raised in poverty. Why? According to a NYTimes article by Nellie Bowles it’s because affluent parents, particularly those in Silicon Valley, realize the addictive nature of screen time, especially the algorithms of products like YouTube that keep feeding viewers more and more links that are likely to pique their interest. This paragraph captures the essence of the new digital divide:

It wasn’t long ago that the worry was that rich students would have access to the internet earlier, gaining tech skills and creating a digital divide. Schools ask students to do homework online, while only about two-thirds of people in the U.S. have broadband internet service. But now, as Silicon Valley’s parents increasingly panic over the impact screens have on their children and move toward screen-free lifestyles, worries over a new digital divide are rising. It could happen that the children of poorer and middle-class parents will be raised by screens, while the children of Silicon Valley’s elite will be going back to wooden toys and the luxury of human interaction.

It is increasingly evident that the internet tool is used in different ways by different families, and affluent families tend to limit use of screens while less affluent families plop their children in front of the screens as a means of giving themselves the time they need to unwind. And the technology whizzes who know how the technology works are the most wary of its overuse:

“There’s a message out there that your child is going to be crippled and in a different dimension if they’re not on the screen,” said Pierre Laurent, a former Microsoft and Intel executive now on the board of trustees at Silicon Valley’s Waldorf School. “That message doesn’t play as well in this part of the world.”

People in this region of the world understand that the real thing is everything that’s happening around big data, AI, and that is not something that you’re going to be particularly good at because you have a cellphone in fourth grade,” Mr. Laurent said.

Understanding how to use a phone is not the same as understanding how the phone affects your thinking and your well-being… and those who understand the impact of the phones and screens on children are the most reluctant to encourage their use.


Birds of a Feather: The Sacklers and Silicon Valley CEOs

October 31, 2018 Comments off

Several months ago the New Yorker published an article on how the Sackler family made billions of dollars through the sale of oxycontin, a drug their researchers knew was addictive but their marketing department insisted was not so. The article was one of the first ones I read that underscored what I call the philanthropy paradox. The Sacklers have used their massive fortune earned by selling an addictive drug to open museums and support cultural endeavors that are a clear benefit to the public. Should they be praised for the investments in the arts or condemned for the way they earned their fortune? This seems like an easy call: the Sackler’s names should be taken off every arts project they underwrote, their stocks and inheritances liquidated and given to public addiction clinics, and charges should be brought against them for knowingly harming the citizens of our country.

This past weekend a NYTimes article by Nellie Bowles titled “A Dark Consensus about Screens and Kids Begins to Emerge in Silicon Valley” raises a similar question about the technology billionaires. What is the “dark consensus”?

The benefits of screens as a learning tool are overblown, and the risks for addiction and stunting development seem high.

Ms. Bowles then offers several chilling quotes from Silicon Valley executives who have personally witnessed the damage electronics are doing to their own children and concluding that they have opened Pandora’s Box by unleashing phone technology on the world. Here’s a sample:

Asked about limiting screen time for children, Hunter Walk, a venture capitalist who for years directed product for YouTube at Google, sent a photo of a potty training toilet with an iPad attached and wrote: “Hashtag ‘products we didn’t buy.’”…

Athena Chavarria, who worked as an executive assistant at Facebook and is now at Mark Zuckerberg’s philanthropic arm, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, said: “I am convinced the devil lives in our phones and is wreaking havoc on our children.”...

Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired and now the chief executive of a robotics and drone company and founder of said of screens:

“On the scale between candy and crack cocaine, it’s closer to crack cocaine”… “We thought we could control it,” Mr. Anderson said. “And this is beyond our power to control. This is going straight to the pleasure centers of the developing brain. This is beyond our capacity as regular parents to understand.”

Tim Cook, the C.E.O. of Apple, said earlier this year that he would not let his nephew join social networks.Bill Gates banned cellphones until his children were teenagers, and Melinda Gates wrote that she wished they had waited even longer. Steve Jobs would not let his young children near iPads.

John Lilly, a Silicon Valley-based venture capitalist with Greylock Partners and the former C.E.O. of Mozilla, said he tries to help his 13-year-old son understand that he is being manipulated by those who built the technology.

“I try to tell him somebody wrote code to make you feel this way — I’m trying to help him understand how things are made, the values that are going into things and what people are doing to create that feeling,” Mr. Lilly said. “And he’s like, ‘I just want to spend my 20 bucks to get my Fortnite skins.’”

How are these executives any different from the Sackler family? How can we possibly lionize them as entrepreneurs and philanthropists when they are knowingly promoting a product that damages the thinking of citizens?

I’m not sure how to get the genie back in the bottle on technology… but it is evident that one of the motivating factors in providing children with phones is the pervasive fear that harm might come to them. One of the defenses offered by parents who provide phones to their children was this: they want to be able to keep track of where their children are at all times. As one who experienced what is now called a “free range childhood” and laments that such a childhood now seems abhorrent, the notion that my parents would need to keep track of my every move seems overbearing. But while getting the genie back in the bottle would be problematic, it seems to me that the people who invented and profited from the advent of these addictive gadgets bear some responsibility for developing a counter measure… even if the counter measure does not make their shareholders happy.

A Reprehensible Response to a Despicable Act

October 30, 2018 Comments off

This past weekend I was away from my computer and away from reading the news. I am now catching up and find myself dismayed over the news from Pittsburgh where a loner who despises Jews entered a synagogue and killed 11 worshipers who were attending a ceremony where an infant was being named. The shooter in this incident, predictably, had a home arsenal that included multiple weapons designed to kill human beings. He was described as a “loner” who took this action because “he wanted to kill some Jews”.

This act was horrific… but the President’s response was reprehensible and nonsensical. Here’s what he said to the press in response to this act:

In response to a question about whether the shooting Saturday at the Tree of Life Synagogue should spark questions of increased gun control, Trump said: “If they had protection inside, the results would have been far better. If they had some kind of protection within the temple it could have been a much better situation. They didn’t.”

It was a point he repeated several times in his remarks to reporters at Joint Base Andrews a few hours after the shooting. Trump was en route to an event in Indianapolis Saturday.

He later added: “This is a case where if they had an armed guard inside they may have been able to stop him immediately, maybe there would have been nobody killed, except for him maybe.”

Is THIS America today? Are we a nation where every place of worship now supposed to hire a “good guy with a gun” to protect itself from an individual whose right to own a weapon designed to kill humans must be protected? If houses of worship are expected to have armed guards so that every person can buy any kind of arms they desire we are moving to a police state if we are not there already…. As reported in a 2016 Nextbigfuture post, private police already outnumber public police 5:1…. and I cannot help but think that the ratio is even higher now!

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Engaged Parents Are the Target Group of Privatizers

October 30, 2018 Comments off

As noted in several earlier posts, one of the subtle but corrosive consequences of choice is that  the children of engaged parents flee their public schools leaving “other children” behind. This flight of engaged parents undercuts the idea that “OUR children” are in public education together. In affluent communities, virtually every parent is engaged, which makes it impossible for reformers to gain a toe hold. In less affluent communities or cities many parents have bigger concerns than where their child will go to school… they worry about where their child will sleep or where their next meal is coming from… and finding the time to study the “choices” for their child is an impossibility. As I observe my daughters in Brooklyn navigating the system in place as a result of Mayor Bloomberg’s decision to offer “choice” as a means of keeping middle class parents in public schools it is evident that a single parent who holds down more than one job or works the 50-60 hours required to hold down a professional job would find it impossible to study the “choices” available to parents.

And here’s the bottom line: the parents who ARE engaged in those less affluent communities and cities are the target group of privatizers…. and when the engaged parents abandon the public schools it exacerbates the divide between rich and poor and makes it increasingly difficult to secure more funding for the kinds of wraparound services necessary to provide a level playing field for the children of less engaged parents. The only way for this vicious circle to break is for taxpayers who value equity to band together to insist that every child have the same opportunity to learn as the children of engaged and/or affluent parents.

The Closing of New Orleans Charters Evidence that the Invisible Hand Makes Services Disappear

October 29, 2018 Comments off

In a blog post written yesterday, Diane Ravitch describes how over 670 school children were left without a school when a private charter went out of business…. oh, and only two of those children were white and only 5% did not qualify for free and reduced lunch. This just happened in New Orleans, the city where Hurricane Katrina opened the door for wholesale privatization and, supposedly a “miracle” that resulted in improved performance in the public schools.

Much of the post deals with debunking this so-called miracle, but no where does Ms. Ravitch point out the fact that once a service is commodified, the “invisible hand” of the marketplace comes into play and, according to economic theory, everyone will benefit because efficient and well run enterprises will rise to the top and poorly run businesses will be forced to close. But here’s another reality of economic theory that reformers conveniently overlook: the invisible hand of the marketplace creates far more options in marketplaces where there are large sums of money and has no incentive to provide equity. The result is that those who reside in poor neighborhoods and poor towns do not have the same choices and those who live in affluent neighborhoods and communities.

And here’s a sad consequence of the marketplace paradigm: As long as those living in affluence do not have to worry about the impact of the marketplace on their neighborhood schools and as long as they have a wide range of choices when it comes to buying food, clothing and shelter, they can buy into the idea that EVERYONE has that same array of choices and, therefore, endorse the notion that “choice” is a fair means of leveling the playing field.

Schools and public services cannot be commodified… for when they are, the inequities that exist in options for housing, food, and shopping will occur in those services.


Campbell’s Law CAN Be Repealed… but Only By Introducing Multiple and Soft Measures

October 28, 2018 Comments off

Decades ago, in 1985 to be precise, I gave a presentation to teachers at the beginning of the school year that featured a slide that read “What Gets Measured Gets Done”. At the time, NH was about to launch some form of standardized test that was intended to be the end all for accountability and, at the time, I was advocating that our district devise multiple measures for accountability in order to avoid being held accountable based on a single, flawed measure. At the same time, my Assistant Superintendent and I conferred with the consultants from the standardized test company to see if there was some way we could use their norm-referenced test as a criterion referenced test (short answer: it was possible but only through convoluted calculations) and we persuaded the school boards to look at the test results through a criterion-referenced lens as opposed to the norm-referenced lens that we felt mis-represented the effectiveness of our schools since what was tested did not match what we were teaching. I don’t think we were familiar with Campbell’s Law at that time, but without being aware of it we were determined not to fall prey to it. What is Campbell’s Law? Fred Hess offers this definition in a recent Medium post:

Formulated in 1976 by social psychologist Donald Campbell, it reads, “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.” Put simply: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”

Without knowing of Campbell’s Law at the time, my Assistant and I both understood the aphorism “What Gets Measured Gets Done” and we both believed that the national norm referenced standardized tests being used in New Hampshire did NOT measure what we were teaching and, therefore, should NOT be used as a valid accountability measure. Fortunately, the district we worked in was led by school board members who understood this and, therefore, did not pay that much attention to the test results that were reported in the local media. As I witnessed throughout my career, one reason the school boards did not pay that much attention to the test results was that our schools invariably scored very high on the tests: parents were generally well educated, engaged with the schools, and pushed their children to succeed.

Throughout my career as a Superintendent I tried to get the school boards to develop multiple measures for the schools, because if the only measure of success is a nationally normed test score the only thing students will be exposed to in class is a curriculum that is focussed on what is tested… and standardized tests cannot measure what is really important: the development of a joy for continuous learning thought one’s life.

I still believe “What Gets Measured Gets Done” and still believe that norm-referenced standardized tests have a place in measuring a school’s effectiveness… but given the high correlation between parent income and education and test scores it seems foolish to equate high test scores with quality. And given the very tenuous correlation between high test scores and college success and/or earnings, it seems even more preposterous to use those scores as the sole metric for measuring quality. But we love to rank and compare in our country, and norm-referenced tests give us an easy way to do so…. and so the beat goes on….

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Walmart Heiress Alice Walton’s Efforts to Undermine Public Education Exemplify All That is Wrong with Tax Laws

October 27, 2018 Comments off

A few days ago I met with my financial consultant to discuss how to make the best use of my IRAs in the coming years. In the course of our conversation he noted wryly that I would not have to worry about my children having to pay inheritance taxes since I the passage of “tax reform” means that I could pass along somewhere over $22,000,000 to my children without them having to pay taxes. Needless to say, that is no where near what I have in my IRAs…

But Alice Walton’s father passed along a lot more of his fortune to her, and, as blogger-researcher Mercedes Schneider reports, she is using that fortune to undercut public education in 15 states and counting… and that doesn’t count the donations to ALEC, Americans for Prosperity and a host of other anti-government organizations. If she were the only “investor” doing this it would not be a problem, but several other billionaires have joined her and as a result those of us who are ardent supporters of democratically governed public schools feel threatened…. and many feel that our entire democracy is under siege from the billionaires who can spend a minuscule amount of their fortunes to dictate the direction our nation is headed.

Like her fellow heir, President Trump, Ms. Walton pays the taxes she is legally required to pay…. and like Mr. Trump she is disdainful of any legislation that would compel her to pay more knowing that the money would be “squandered”….