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How Are Our Schools Doing? Jack Schneider Reports They are Doing MUCH Better Than Most People Believe!

October 21, 2018 Leave a comment

Both Valerie Strauss and Diane Ravitch cross posted a recent article by UMass professor Jack Schneider that describes how America’s public schools are REALLY doing…. and the answer is that they are doing surprisingly well.

Mr. Schneider offers an analysis of polls on public schools and NAEP test scores and comes to the conclusion that the American public’s perception of public schools in general has taken a hit because of national policy, not because of any substantial decline in overall performance as measured by standardized tests. He writes:

It seems, then, that abstract perceptions of schools — the nation’s schools — have suffered, while satisfaction with actual schools remains fairly constant. Today, roughly one-third of Americans have a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the nation’s public schools — a massive falloff from the early 1970s, when nearly two-thirds expressed such positive views. Meanwhile, nothing appears to have changed for the worse…

it seems that national reform rhetoric has driven the decline in perceptions of school quality.For the past several decades, Americans have been inundated with messages about a crisis in public education. In 1983, the authors of “A Nation at Risk” claimed: “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

Signing NCLB into law in 2002, President George W. Bush spoke of a need to “free families from failure in public education.” And in a recent address, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos lamented the fact that, according to results from the Program for International Student Assessment, “the U.S. ranked 23rd in reading, 25th in science and 40th in math.”

Politicians are not alone. Policy advocates and philanthropists routinely decry the state of American public education, generally as a prelude to their prescribed reforms. The XQ “Super School” project, for instance — a venture funded by billionaire Laurene Powell Jobs — explained its objective by making the case that we need to “scrap the blueprint and revolutionize this dangerously broken system.” One can’t even open a book about education without being told how bad things are. A quick search on the Google Books Ngram Viewer indicates that the likelihood of encountering the phrase “failing schools” was 100 times greater in 2008 than it was in 1975.

Given the fact that there is no evidence that school performance has declined overall since 1975,  Mr. Schneider is skeptical that a wholesale shake-up of schools is needed. Instead, he sees that the schools who struggle the most today are the same schools that struggled in the past and they need something more than a structural change:

…sweeping, large-scale reform is hardly the remedy for what ails our most vulnerable schools — the schools where our poorest and least advantaged students are all so often concentrated together. Disruption, which is so highly lauded in the private sector, is exactly what those schools don’t need. Instead, what they need is courageous policy addressing issues like school integration and compensatory funding.

But integration and higher taxes are not on either party’s radar, nor are they issues that the public at large values. Mr. Schneider concludes his article with this indictment of our country’s moral failings:

But America’s schools don’t merely reflect our nation’s material prosperity. They also reflect our moral poverty. Our schools are simultaneously an embrace and a refusal, revealing exactly who is included and who isn’t. Most of us can say our children are getting a great education. Yet whose children are “ours”? What do they look like? Where do they rest their heads at night?

Reform rhetoric about the failures of America’s schools is both overheated and off the mark. Our schools haven’t failed. Most are as good as the schools anyplace else in the world. And in schools where that isn’t the case, the problem isn’t unions or bureaucracies or an absence of choice. The problem is us. The problem is the limit of our embrace.

Perhaps, then, a reset is in order. Instead of telling a largely untrue story about a system in decline — a story that absolves us of any personal responsibility — we might begin telling a different story: about a system that works. It works to deliver a high-quality education to those we collectively embrace. And it works in a different way for those we have collectively refused. When a school fails, it is because we have failed.

We HAVE failed the children raised in poverty, especially those children of color and those children who are not from our country even though they are of our country. And when democracy fails to provide for ALL of its citizens, it cannot succeed in the long run. Mr. Schneider is right: The problem is us. The problem is the limit of our embrace.

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Humanist Entrepreneur Offers Four Ways to Change the Dominant Paradigm

October 15, 2018 Leave a comment

The Evonomics blog offers weekly articles that offer thought provoking insights into how our economy could evolve into one that serves all consumers and citizens more effectively. This week’s blog offered a post that was an acceptance speech by “serial entrepreneur” Nick Hanauer. And the award he was receiving? The 2018 Harvard and MIT Humanist of the Year. 

His speech was full of pithy quotes about the failed Homo Economicus model that has dominated Western thinking for the past several decades. In the speech, Mr. Hanauer described the flaws of the current economic paradigm and his belief that our perspectives on how the market really works:

I believe (we have) a fundamentally flawed understanding of how market capitalism works, grounded in the dubious assumption that human beings are “homo economicus”:  perfectly selfish, perfectly rational, and relentlessly self-maximizing. It is this behavioral model upon which all the other models of orthodox economics are built. And it is nonsense.

The last 40 years of research across multiple scientific disciplines has proven, with certainty, that homo economicus does not exist. Outside of economic models, this is simply not how real humans behave. Rather, Homo sapiens have evolved to be other-regarding, reciprocal, heuristic, and intuitive moral creatures. We can be selfish, yes—even cruel. But it is our highly evolved prosocial nature—our innate facility for cooperation, not competition—that has enabled our species to dominate the planet, and to build such an extraordinary—and extraordinarily complex—quality of life. Pro-sociality is our economic super power.

In effect, Mr. Hanauer is arguing that that the Ayn Rand philosophy of economics– the so-called “Virtue of Selfishness”– proposed by Milton Friedman that is explicitly endorsed by the Conservatives and implicitly endorsed by the neo-liberals is wrong. Instead of adopting the “Greed is Good” credo we should instead adopt a pro-social credo based on the Golden Rule. If we did use the prosocial approach, here’s what Mr. Hanauer sees as the result… and it is full of great quotes, which are flagged in italicized red:

Properly viewed through this prosocial economic lens, we see clearly that it is our humanity, not the absence of it, that is the source of our prosperity.

But of course, in working to change the way we think about the economy, my ultimate goal is to change the way we act within it. And to this end, I’d like to close by offering four simple heuristics to guide your own actions and activism:

Heuristic number one: Capitalism is self-organizing, but not self-regulating.

The notion of market capitalism as a Pareto-optimal closed, equilibrium system is—to use the technical term—bullshit. Throughout the world, the most broadly prosperous capitalist economies are also the most highly regulated and highly taxed. To be clear: Government investment and intervention is not a necessary evil. It is just plain necessary.

Which leads us to heuristic number two: True capitalism is not shareholder capitalism.

The neoliberal claim that the sole purpose of the corporation is to enrich shareholders is the most egregious grift in contemporary life. Corporations are granted limited liability in exchange for improving the common good. Thus, the true purpose of the corporation is to build great products for customers, provide good jobs for employees, provide a fair return to shareholders and to make their communities stronger—in coequal measure.

Heuristic Three: Capitalism is effective, but not efficient.

Schumpeter’s “perennial gale of creative destruction” has proven extraordinarily effective at raising our aggregate standard of living, but it can also be extraordinarily wasteful, cruel, and unequal—unequal to the point that it threatens to destroy capitalism itself. If our economy and our democracy are to survive the ever-quickening pace of technological change, we must use every tool available to close “the innovation gap” between our economic institutions and our civic institutions.

And finally, heuristic number four: True capitalists are moral capitalists.

Being rapacious doesn’t make you a capitalist. It makes you an asshole and a sociopath. In an economy dependent on complex trust networks to facilitate the cooperative tasks from which prosperity emerges, and when prosperity itself is understood—not as money but as solutions to human problems—true capitalists understand that every economic act is an explicitly moral choice—and they act accordingly.

Mr. Hanauer concluded his speech with this hopeful and uplifting note:

And so, to all the aspiring business and technology leaders in the audience today, I want to challenge you to adopt an alternative credo, far more ambitious—and more humanist—than Google’s “Don’t be evil”: “Be good.” Or maybe, “Always do the right thing.”

And when you do the right thing, do it with confidence that if it is the right thing to do for your customers, for your employees, for your community, and for the planet—then it is also the right thing to do for your shareholders.

I hope the audience heard Mr. Hanauer’s plea and adopts his recommended credo… but I fear that doing right by the shareholders will be a hard paradigm to overcome.

The Free Market in Public Schools is Creating— or Reinforcing the Existence of “School Deserts”

October 14, 2018 Leave a comment

Andrea Gabor, the Bloomberg chair of business journalism at Baruch College of the City University of New York, recently wrote an op ed article for Bloomberg.com that concisely describes the way privatizers undermined the original intent of charter schools and expropriated the laws passed to enhance them to their own ends. Diane Ravitch quoted from the article extensively in a post yesterday, which included these two paragraphs:

“Now the charter industry is reaching an inflection point. Business backers are pushing to expand charter schools at an unprecedented rate, doubling down on the idea that free markets are the best approach to improving K-12 education. At the same time, critics — some from within the charter movement — are shining a spotlight on the industry’s failures and distortions…

That faith in markets isn’t supported by the evidence, however. Studies show that, on average, charter schools and traditional public schools produce similar results. But freedom from regulation is associated not with success but with especially high failure rates; charter-school performance tends to be weakest in states with the laxest rules for ensuring education quality.

From the efficiency minded business perspective, the charters ARE succeeding by the only metric that counts in the corporate world: they are making money AND they are operating efficiently in the sense that they are delivering the the same results for a lower cost. Given that reality, why would a taxpayer protest against privatization? After all, if their taxes remain stable and the results stay the same why would they complain? . Haven’t they been paying more for the same results for decades?

Moreover, why would any free marketeer be concerned if the parents of children raised in impoverished neighborhoods don’t have the same choice of schools as the parents of children raised in affluence? The answer is they aren’t concerned at all! The privatizers realize that too many parents in affluent communities believe that parents in impoverished communities have the same opportunities as they do. But that is clearly NOT the case. Do the parents of children raised in impoverished neighborhoods have the same choice of supermarkets as the parents of children raised in affluence? Do they have the same choice of gas stations? Of department stores? Of stores that sell clothing? And… is the unregulated “market” responding to this inequality?

The market IS working in the privatization of public schools… and the ultimate result will be the creation— or more accurately— the reinforcement of “schooling deserts” that mirror the “food deserts” that currently exist in impoverished neighborhoods. In the meantime, the privateers will not have to worry about an uprising from the upper middle class parents who are safely ensconced in their well-heeled public schools governed by elected school boards… nor will they have to worry about an uprising from politicians as long as they get the same results without increasing taxes.

As long as the argument is about getting the most possible from as little taxation as possible, the privatizers will prevail. Instead of supporting candidates who want to reinvent government to resemble business we should look to candidates who want to restore the equal opportunities for all, even if it means spending more money and having more government regulation.

Can There Be A Bad Philanthropist? Beneficiaries Don’t Think So

October 2, 2018 Comments off

This winter I will be teaching a course in our local Osher Adult Education program titled “The Philanthropy Paradox”. Here’s the description of the course:

Is philanthropy always beneficial to the well-being of citizens? Do philanthropists always make donations that support the public’s best interest? How does government policy effect philanthropy? This course will examine the impact philanthropists have had and are having on our well-being as a nation. It will draw on articles from periodicals and Winners Take All, a recent book written by Anand Giridharadas. It will invite class members to participate in dialogue on the benefits and drawbacks of philanthropy and, in doing so, examine their own contributions of time and money.

This course is an outgrowth of readings I’ve done in the course of writing this blog, many of which I’ve archived in a bookmark called “Philanthropy Paradox”. The latest article to land in that bookmark is Alexis Madrigal’s Atlantic article titled “Hate Mark Zuckerberg Now, You’ll Love Him Later“. The article embodies the philanthropy paradox. It describes the rapacious behavior Mr. Zuckerberg exhibits in his effort to capture and control market share in the social media sphere and provides evidence of the resultant distaste the public currently feels towards him. But Mr. Madrigal notes that Mr. Zuckerberg is following the same path as Carnegie, Rockefeller, Stanford and Vanderbilt… and… most notably the path of Bill Gates:

No matter what happens to Zuckerberg over the next few years, or how Facebook does or does not restore its image, Zuckerberg’s long-term fate is easy to predict. You, and most everyone else, will end up loving him. That may be hard to believe, but he has a close adviser who followed a startlingly similar path: Bill Gates.

Lest readers of this blog forget (or be born too early to know), when “boy-wonder” Bill Gates led Microsoft he was loathed at least as much as Mark Zuckerberg and for the same reasons: he worked hard to seize and hold onto market share. But since Bill Gates retired, he has become an iconic philanthropist who can do no wrong:

Gates, then, after serving as CEO of a despised company for 25 years, stepped down at 44. After that, he retained control as chairman with a buddy (Steve Ballmer) at the top. But from that point forward, Bill Gates began his rehabilitation from corporate demon to beloved grandpa philanthropist. Mostly, it took giving away vast sums of money while staying out of the day-to-day corporate headlines. Here, we are, 18 years on, and Gates is seen as the most admired man in the country. Also the most competent. And his “warmth” polling falls behind only Ellen DeGeneres.

I have “softly” defended Bill Gates’ forays into public education as misguided as opposed to malicious, believing his intentions, unlike those of the Koch brothers, were not anti-democratic or wrong-headed. But I do see Gates’ accumulation of wealth as malignant because much of Microsoft’s profits— like the profits of many large corporations– are based on tax avoidance. And when taxes are sheltered and unspent in banks the money cannot be used to achieve public goods as determined by democratically elected governments. Furthermore, when earnings can be shielded from taxation by being funneled into legitimately sheltered foundations it strikes me that legislators are limiting their own ability to underwrite initiatives that the GOVERNMENT should fund and allowing individual philanthropists to pay for.

But the general public seems to overlook how billionaire philanthropists earned their fortunes. Eventually their donations can buy the public’s adulation:

Like Carnegie and Rockefeller, Stanford and Vanderbilt, if you give away enough money, your name eventually becomes synonymous with goodness, charity, wisdom, competence, even warmth.

And like Carnegie and Rockefeller, Stanford and Vanderbilt, neither Gates nor Zuckerberg want anyone to remember how they came by their fortunes…. and how their avoidance of taxes supplanted democratic decision making.

Detroit’s Children Sue For Equity… and Unburdened by State Oversight, They Get Superintendent’s Support

September 19, 2018 Comments off

USA Today reporters Chrissie Thompson, Michelle Miller, Maite Amorebieta and Joseph Annunciate wrote an article describing the decision of students from five of Detroit’s worst-performing public schools to appeal the decision of the U.S. District Court in Detroit to reject their lawsuit based on the premise that they had a constitutional right to be educated. Their argument was that literacy is a necessary prerequisite for voting, accessing the courts and serving in the military and since the revenue starved Detroit schools were incapable of guaranteeing literacy they should be fully funded.  The article opened with these two paragraphs describing the high school one of the plaintiffs attended:

Jamarria Hall’s Detroit high school reminded him of a state prison: chains on the doors, disgusting food and dirty water, bathroom stalls without doors. No computers, tablets or SMART Boards. The few books he saw in the school were older than he was.

“Is this really a school? Like, this has to be a movie,” Hall said he thought. “People were getting set up to fail.”

Later the article quotes their Superintendent, Nicholai Vitti, as noting that the conditions in Detroit would be unacceptable in nearby suburbs.

That wouldn’t be allowed at suburban schools, Vitti said. In other words, he said, “racist” policies created the mess at Detroit’s public schools– a mess he’s trying to fix, although with a limited budget.

“When people aren’t listening at the legislative level, if former governors don’t listen and don’t take heed to the challenges that children are facing, then you have to resort to other measures,” Vitti said. “And so parents resorted to the courts in order to hear their voice.”

What USA Today failed to mention– and Mr. Vitti undoubtedly intentionally failed to underscore– was that until a year ago the Detroit schools were under the control of the State and the state appointed “emergency managers” were forced by the State to impose austerity measures that undercut the ability of schools to provide a basic education to the students. Without referencing the governance issue, USA Today did flag the deficiencies:

The school system wasn’t receiving enough money from the state, so teachers weren’t trained in how to teach to current education standards, Vitti said. The curriculum was inappropriate for each grade level and was several years outdated.

Only 10 percent of students are reading at grade level. The school district needs $500 million to update its crumbling schools, and the district’s financial structure post-bailout only allocated $25 million to spend on such endeavors.

And the article did note the disparities that exist between the suburban schools bordering Detroit and the city itself, quoting the plaintiff Jamarria Hall:

“Grosse Pointe is right across the city border line. Right across,” Hall said, describing a well-to-do suburb. “iPad, tablet, SMART Boards everywhere. Their floor is glossy. Glossy clean. There’s no metal detector, no security guard. And it’s right across the border line.”

Right across the border line… a border line that is more impenetrable than the border between the US and Mexico. But in today’s United States, we want secure borders everywhere… especially between those raised in affluence and those raised in poverty.

 

Here’s an Idea for Philanthropists… and Our Country: Spend on Children!

September 14, 2018 Comments off

Quartz offers articles from a wide range of sources on a wide range of topics and earlier this summer they published an article by Jenny Anderson and Dan Kopf titled “Dear Powerful People, Here’s the Case for Investing More in Little Kids“. The article highlights recent research done on small children that shows that small investments in medicine and food can make a huge difference in the well being of children in all nations.

When I read the article I immediately thought of two sets of “powerful people” who might heed this advice: philanthropists who are looking for a chance to use their money to help those less fortunate; and developed countries who are seeking a way to influence the thinking of citizens in countries that are war torn. Maybe if philanthropists spent as much on small impoverished children as they spent on fancy university buildings we might have fewer “failing schools”… and maybe if our country spent as much on refugee children as they spent creating those refugee children with drone strikes our nation might be viewed more favorably.

Washington Post Incomplete and Misleading Headline

September 14, 2018 Comments off

Wednesday’s business section of the Washington Post featured a story by Heather Long and Jeff Stein that featured this headline:

Middle-class income rose above $61,000 for the first time last year, U.S. Census Bureau says

With this level of income, clearly our quality of life is also rising, right?

Not exactly. This sentence in the middle of the article explains WHY family incomes are increasing:

The extra pay from having another person in the home working again or working additional hours is the largest factor contributing to rising income.

And another paragraph describes how comparisons to THIS year’s income levels to those of the past might not be accurate:

Crossing the $61,000 mark signals the American middle-class may have finally earned more than it did in 1999, although the Census Bureau cautions that median income last year was not statistically different from 1999 or 2007.A change in methodology in 2013 makes precise comparisons difficult. All the income figures have been adjusted for inflation and are reported in 2017 dollars.

Well, at least the increase in family income is a sign that poverty is abating, right? Well… yes and no:

The Census Bureau also reported that the U.S. poverty rate declined modestly to 12.3 percent, the lowest level in years and a sign the economic devastation from the Great Recession is subsiding.

But by other measures, the economy is still not working for everyone. The percentage of Americans without health insurance stalled last year after several years of progress to extend coverage to more people under the Affordable Care Act.

The Washington Post, owned by Jeff Bezos, who notoriously underpays his employees and compels them to work on-demnad, only sees silver linings, though.

Still, economists say the trends on income and poverty are moving in the right direction and have been showing improvement for the past three years as the unemployment rate has fallen. Incomes would likely be rising even faster if wages were growing more.

But, alas, if incomes for employees increased and their working conditions improved and pesky clean air and water regulations were reinstated then profits for shareholders would decrease and the stock market would soften and “economists” would be VERY upset.

One other point as a former public school administrator: if test scores improved as modestly as these wage figures, the headline would NOT read:

Test Scores rose above “X” for the first time last year, U.S.D.O.E. Reports

It would more likely read:

Public Schools are still not working for everyone.

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