Posts Tagged ‘Efficiency is the Enemy’

The Businessman’s Priorities in Government: Cut Spending in the Name of Efficiency

September 16, 2017 Leave a comment

Over the last couple of days the NYTimes reported on Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s quest to impose efficiencies on the State Department in the name of saving money. His approach in hacking at the State Department bureaucracy is reminiscent of the tactics used by non-educators recruited to lead schools on the theory that “running schools like a business” will result in greater efficiency and savings to the taxpayers. But, as often noted in this blog, the metrics in schools— and the State Department— are softer than those of business. As Times writer Gardiner Harris reports, Mr. Tillerson’s obsession with efficiency is not only alienating people in his Department, it is bringing rebukes from former GOP State Department officials and current GOP legislators:

The changes are part of a wholesale rethinking by Mr. Tillerson of how the State Departments conducts diplomacy. That rethinking has led Mr. Tillerson, a former chief executive of Exxon Mobil, to leave many jobs unfilled and preside over a restructuring scheduled to begin next year that will shrink the department’s work force and recast its duties.

For the State Department’s diplomats — already deeply skeptical of Mr. Tillerson’s lack of foreign policy experience, his inability to make timely decisions, put a leadership team in place or express a global strategy — the cuts are further evidence of his lack of understanding of what the department does. 

Former officials are more outspoken — and more willing to be quoted.

These cuts are needlessly stupid,” said Eliot A. Cohen, a top department official during the administration of President George W. Bush. “So much of what diplomacy is about is building and maintaining relationships.”

Congressional critics have sounded much the same theme, and have not reacted positively to Mr. Tillerson’s plans for cuts or restructuring. Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina who leads the subcommittee that controls the State Department’s budget, issued a spending plan last week that largely rejected Mr. Tillerson’s proposed cuts, saying, “Now is not the time for retreat.”

Mr. Cohen’s remarks are the most telling, because they underscore the major difference between operating a service organization, like the State Department, and a business, like Exxon Mobil. It strikes me that Lindsay Graham might be able to help Mr. Tillerson appreciate the difference by asking hims if Exxon-Mobil cut back on its expenditures for lobbyists when the news broke about his organization’s prior knowledge about the impact of fossil fuels on global warming…. because the lobbying of businesses is analogous to the work of the State Department…. and lobbying, like diplomacy, is about building and maintaining relationships.

Those who are dismayed with Mr. Tillerson’s approach might take heart in reading that the President, too, is dismayed with Mr. Tillerson… not because of his performance as leader of the State Department but because Mr. Tillerson spoke out against Mr. Trump’s inflammatory remarks following the incidents in Charlottesville.

But in the face of this criticism, Mr. Tillerson marches forward in the name of efficiency:

On Thursday, Mr. Tillerson said in remarks to employees that the most important thing he could do during his tenure was to make the State Department more efficient. For him and his top aides, saving tens of thousands of dollars on unnecessary hotel rooms is a sign of good stewardship. For his diplomats, it shows that he fails to understand the importance of routine diplomacy below his level.

If Mr. Tillerson and his other Cabinet colleagues with a business background fail to grasp the differences between rewarding shareholders and serving the nation we are in trouble. Here’s hoping that the voices of former and current GOP leaders who understand that difference are heard.


The Shareholder’s Credo: “Focus on Core Competence and Outsource the Rest”

September 9, 2017 Leave a comment

A New York Times article by Neil Irwin on changes in the employment of janitors by two different technology companies over the past three decades illustrates why our current corporate practices are contributing to the widening divide in earnings and opportunities. To illustrate the change in the nature of these substantive changes, Mr. Irwin profiles two janitors: Gail Evans and Marta Ramos who had one thing in common: “They have each cleaned offices for one of the most innovative, profitable and all-around successful companies in the United States.”

Ms. Evans worked at Eastman Kodak in Rochester NY in the late 1980s. Ms. Ramos is currently working for Apple in Cupertino, CA. Ms. Ramos earns the same amount per hour in inflation adducted wages… but while the wages are identical, the working conditions vary tremendously:

Evans was a full-time employee of Kodak. She received more than four weeks of paid vacation per year, reimbursement of some tuition costs to go to college part time, and a bonus payment every March. When the facility she cleaned was shut down, the company found another job for her: cutting film.

Ramos is an employee of a contractor that Apple uses to keep its facilities clean. She hasn’t taken a vacation in years, because she can’t afford the lost wages. Going back to school is similarly out of reach. There are certainly no bonuses, nor even a remote possibility of being transferred to some other role at Apple.

Yet the biggest difference between their two experiences is in the opportunities they created. A manager learned that Evans was taking computer classes while she was working as a janitor and asked her to teach some other employees how to use spreadsheet software to track inventory. When she eventually finished her college degree in 1987, she was promoted to a professional-track job in information technology.

Less than a decade later, Evans was chief technology officer of the whole company, and she has had a long career since as a senior executive at other top companies. Ramos sees the only advancement possibility as becoming a team leader keeping tabs on a few other janitors, which pays an extra 50 cents an hour.

They both spent a lot of time cleaning floors. The difference is, for Ramos, that work is also a ceiling.

Ms. Ramos’ experience is typical of today’s workforce because, as corporations, small businesses, and— yes— school districts employ more and more contracted employees. Why? The headline of this post is taken from this paragraph that sums up the trend:

In the 35 years between their jobs as janitors, corporations across America have flocked to a new management theory: Focus on core competence and outsource the rest. The approach has made companies more nimble and more productive, and delivered huge profits for shareholders. It has also fueled inequality and helps explain why many working-class Americans are struggling even in an ostensibly healthy economy.

Outsourcing transportation has a long history in public education. But as a result of following the credo to “focus on core competence and outsource the rest” public schools have outsourced things like payroll, custodial services, food services, hall monitors, and substitute teachers. Some “reform” advocates have even outsourced the core competence of teaching, hiring green Teach For America candidates instead of offering career track opportunities.

In the short run, this practice will pay dividends to shareholders as the ancillary costs like paid sick leave, paid vacation, paid benefits, tuition reimbursement, and pensions. But in the long run, this hiring of contractors instead of long term employees will corrode the economic system. In a world where every job is contracted out there will be fewer and fewer stories like that of Gail Evans, an under-educated but highly motivated blue collar worker who was able to advance up the corporate ladder through the largesse of her employer. When “working hard and playing by the rules” has no long term pay-off is it any wonder that fewer and fewer employees are committed to either hard work or adherence to a code of conduct that enables them to stay in one job?

What if More Education ISN’T the Answer?

August 28, 2017 Leave a comment

In the early 1960s, Abraham Maslow coned the aphorism “if the only tool you have is a hammer, you treat everything as if it were a nail.” As a blogger who writes about education policy and one who worked in public schools for nearly four decades, I’ve long believed that the answer to social mobility is better schools. But of late, I’m beginning to question that proposition and started thinking about a different paradigm, one that begins with the premise that more education might not be the answer…. especially more formal education.

Two books, one fiction and one non-fiction, have caused this shift in thinking. The fiction book is John Grisham’s Gray’s Mountain, which I am halfway through. The non-fiction book is J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, which I just finished last week. Both books deal with what I call “the Appalachian conundrum”, which, I believe, is applicable to all rural areas. It’s this: people tend to settle into a place and stay there… and people who live in rural areas are not willing to trade “country comforts” for the hectic urban and suburban lifestyle beloved of those like me who grew up in a household that relocated regularly.

This conclusion is supported by article in magazines and  newspapers, and the US Census, which showed that 59% of Americans live in the State they were born in. But many college educated individuals move away from their home states and many individuals who do move away from their home towns do so to seek higher paying jobs, jobs that invariably require more education. And many rural communities bemoan the fact that their best and brightest are “forced to leave” because there is “no work in town anymore” because the factory closed, or the mines no longer have any value, or mechanization has eliminated the need for employees.

The solution offered by both political parties is the same: more people should get more education and leave towns that are decimated by the flight of employers. But, as Gray’s Mountain and Hillbilly Elegy explain in different ways, the life in the country has a pull on the people who live there that is far stronger than the pull to go elsewhere and due to family dysfunction and a failed economic system there is nothing productive for them to do in their hometowns. So the fictional and real characters in those two books escape into drugs, religious fundamentalism, and, for a fortunate few, employment in highly mechanized and environmentally destructive jobs. The result is a vicious circle that clutches them tightly, a circle that mobile, well educated, and well intentioned “liberal elites” view as easy to escape through more education combined with bootstrap tenacity and grit.

I do not believe that the empty storefronts in rural and the poor urban neighborhoods in urban America cannot be filled with small businesses operated by people with more education. They are the product of an economy based on the premise that efficiency and the low prices that result from it are more valuable than the well-being of the citizens who buy the goods for low prices. When we premise our economy and our political priorities on the notion that bigger is better, we should expect our small rural towns to be hollowed out and the populous in those towns to escape into drugs and religious fundamentalism to find peace of some kind in their lives…. and we should also expect those living in the small rural towns without economic opportunity to be resentful of anyone who suggests that they need to get more education and move away from their roots in order to share in the benefits of our “new economy”.

And this is leading me to be less certain that more education is the answer… We might need a different tool than “more education” of we hope to achieve a different outcome in the future.


David Gelles’ NYTimes Article Lauds Corporate Morality… Overlooks Their Tax Evasion and Race to the Bottom on Employee Wages and Benefits

August 20, 2017 Leave a comment

I am roughly halfway into David Gelles’ article, “The Moral Voice of Corporate America” and I am already feeling my blood pressure rising as he cites the likes of Jamie Dimon, Walmart CEO Doug Macmillan, and GM CEO Mary Barra as voices of moral authority. I AM pleased that CEOs across the nation spoke out against the President’s support for neo-Nazis, White Supremacists, and other assorted racist groups and I appreciate the bind this could potentially place them in. But, as Mr. Gelles effectively acknowledges, their decisions to speak out were ultimately grounded in pleasing their shareholders:

Diversity — of opinions, ideologies and religions — is what makes taking a stand on moral issues so treacherous for C.E.O.s. Yet paradoxically, it is also diversity — of races, genders and worldviews, among customers and the work force — that makes many of the executives, when forced to take a stand, come down on the side of inclusion, tolerance and acceptance.

Business leaders looking to the future are accepting that it is unwise to isolate swaths of the population by coming off as racist, sexist or intolerant. Instead, for the sake of the bottom line, it is imperative that they appeal to the widest possible audience. “Business leaders aren’t threatened by an America that is browner, an America that is more diverse; they welcome that,” Mr. Walker said. “Business leaders are bullish on diversity.”

What’s more, some executives have concluded that speaking out on issues of morality can improve more than their reputations — it can benefit recruitment, morale and even sales. “Our employees come here knowing that this is something that is extremely important to us,” said Mr. Benioff of Salesforce. “Business is the greatest platform for affecting change.”

I finished the article… and here’s my bottom line: if CEOs ever wanted to take a stand for diversity, they would not seek out tax breaks to build their factories or offices, they would not offshore their work, they would actively recruit employees from disadvantaged and disenfranchised minorities, and they would not lobby for or use tax loopholes that increase their profit. As long as CEOs honor shareholders more than citizens of our country, their moral voice is muted— perhaps beyond repair.

This Just In: National Chains Are Not Good Neighbors. They Want Lower Taxes More than Quality Schools

August 5, 2017 Leave a comment

Earlier this week Education Week writer Francisco Vera-Orta wrote on the “dark store theory “, the latest ploy big box stores are using to avoid paying their fair share of property taxes. The gambit works like this: attorneys representing the big box stores sue the local governments claiming that their huge stores should not be assessed based on square footage calculations because their stores are specially designed for their enterprise only and could not be resold on a per-square-foot basis. As Mr. Vera-Orta reports:

When they succeed, the annual property taxes that retailers pay—which help fund public schools in most local communities—can drop precipitously. 

When they succeed—and the retailers ARE succeeding with this theory at the local level and in the courts— either school budgets need to shrink to address the revenue shortfall or taxes need to increase. As Mr. Vera-Orta reports:

When big-box retailers prevail in lowering their assessments, it can shift more of the tax burden to homeowners and to smaller, local businesses which may not have the legal firepower to push back on how their stores are appraised. Of course, schools depend on revenue generated from homeowners and local business owners as well, so the entire school finance ecosystem could see some form of impact…

The only good news from this trend is that Republican legislators are concerned about it. Republican representatives in TX, MI, IN and WI have introduced bills to forbid the use of this theory, but have so far been unable to gain enough votes to secure permanent passage.

The other good news: local governments who eagerly invite these stores to invade their communities might think twice about the economic benefits they expect to gain… and MAYBE see the benefits of supporting their local businesses instead of inviting a national chain into their communities.

From Pre-K to Career Preparation Courses the Message is the Same: Ignore Easy to Test Skills

July 31, 2017 Leave a comment

With the past week I’ve read two articles that I find heartening. How to Prepare Preschoolers for an Automated Economy”  from today’s NYTimes by Claire Cain Miller and Jess Bidgood and The Key to Jobs in the Future is not College but Compassion from an Aoen post earlier this week written by Livia Gershon both make the same point. Schools overemphasize the skills required for college entry and the use of technology and overlook the most important skills required for the economy today and in the foreseeable future: empathy, collaboration, problem-solving, compassion and caring.

Both articles look at how schooling needds to change given the automation resulting from technological advances. The NYTimes article talks about the earliest years of schooling in that context:

Technological advances have rendered an increasing number of jobs obsolete in the last decade, and researchers say parts of most jobs will eventually be automated. What the labor market will look like when today’s young children are old enough to work is perhaps harder to predict than at any time in recent history. Jobs are likely to be very different, but we don’t know which will still exist, which will be done by machines and which new ones will be created.

To prepare, children need to start as early as preschool, educators say. Foundational skills that affect whether people thrive or fall behind in the modern economy are developed early, and achievement gaps appear before kindergarten.

But the article then emphasizes that teaching “foundational skills” must go beyond those currently offered in the curriculum of most public schools which are dictated by the standardized tests administered beginning in third grade.

Teaching social and emotional skills is fashionable in education right now, but it’s been part of high-quality teaching for decades, and randomized trials over time have shown how important it is to adult success, said Stephanie M. Jones, a professor of education at Harvard who studies social and emotional development.

If you raise and educate kids to be flexible, problem solvers and good communicators, they can adapt to a world that is new,” she said.

This is natural to the way preschoolers learn, said David Deming, a professor of public policy, economics and economics at Harvard. They flexibly move from the art area to the block area during free play; they build structures and make collages; and they share toys and try again when they mess up.

A big challenge — and one he said is essential to preparing children for a labor market in which routine and individualized tasks are being automated — is making sure this style of education is not lost in higher grades, when teachers turn to lecturing and standardized curriculums. Just as preschoolers learn math by operating a pretend store instead of doing work sheets, he suggests high schoolers learn government by staging a mock Congress rather than reading a textbook.

“You’re learning to work in groups and be creative, and that this problem you’re facing today looks like a problem you faced in a different context a year ago,” he said. “That is a process that is very hard for artificial intelligence to replicate.”

Ms. Gershon’s Aoen essay drills more deeply into the flaws of our current economy that undervalues care-giving professions which, in turn, works against the strengths of those raised in the working class and the strengths of females:

It is becoming clear to researchers that working-class people tend to have sharper emotional skills than their wealthier, more educated counterparts. In 2016, the psychologists Pia Dietze and Eric Knowles from New York University found that people from higher social classes spent less time looking at people they passed on the street than did less privileged test subjects. In an online experiment, higher-class subjects were also worse at noticing small changes in images of human faces…

It can be hard to wrap our minds around the notion that emotional work really is work. With the very toughest, very worst-paid jobs, like working with the dying and incontinent, that might be because those of us who don’t have to do the work would rather not think about how crucial and difficult it really is. In other settings, often we simply don’t have the professional language to talk about the emotional work we’re doing. Smiling and nodding at a client’s long, rambling story might be the key to signing that big contract, but resumes don’t include a bullet point for ‘tolerates inconsiderate bores’. A lot of the time, emotional labour doesn’t feel like labour. It’s also not hard to see that highly educated, mostly male, people who develop and analyse economic policy have blind spots when it comes to skills concentrated among working-class women.

In effect, Gershon is arguing that our current economy has set a vicious circle in place whereby the very skills needed in an automated world are undervalued making those jobs less attractive. And this vicious circle will be hard to break since so many jobs depend on the implicit belief that more education is required for success, which may not be the case at all:

Another problem is that the question of how to help low-wage care workers make more money is invariably answered by: ‘give them a better education’. Policy designers talk a lot about ‘professionalising’ direct-care work, advancing proposals for things such as ‘advanced training’ on diabetes or dementia care. Recently, Washington, DC decided to require childcare workers to have a bachelor’s degree – a move one school-district official said would ‘build the profession and set our young children on a positive trajectory for learning and development’. Granted, anyone working with older people with disabilities, or with small children, might benefit from studying research on the particular needs of these groups; and widely accessible college education is a good idea for reasons that go far beyond vocational training. But assuming that more time in the classroom is key to making ‘better’ workers fundamentally disrespects the profound, completely non-academic skills needed to calm a terrified child or maintain composure around a woman playing with her own faeces.

The US economists W Norton Grubb and Marvin Lazerson call the belief in more schooling as the solution to every labour problem the ‘education gospel’. As Grubb argued in a 2005 talk, having more education tends to help individuals find better work, but that doesn’t make schooling a good overall economic strategy. In fact, he said, 30 to 40 per cent of workers in developed countries already have more education than their jobs demand.

And here’s an irony: the “solution” to the need for the future workforce to have more empathy is… you guessed it… more education programming! Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) is spreading across schooling at all levels. But after describing the expansion of SEL programs, Ms. Gershon concludes that their spread may be limited by our standardized testing ethos:

SEL programmes in the US explicitly teach students strategies for developing empathy, managing their own emotions and working with others. Kids practise using affirming language with each other, they collaboratively design rules to govern the classroom, or use mindfulness to improve their understanding of their own mental processes. Researchers are finding that such programmes help students to adopt more positive attitudes and behave in more socially appropriate ways. Many school districts have already adopted SEL programmes, and last year, eight US states announced a collaboration to develop statewide SEL standards.

But the conversation around SEL puts a glaring spotlight on the limited value we place on emotional skills. Often, the programmes are marketed only as ways to reduce violence, not methods for developing crucial human abilities. And in academic environments where testing pressures and back-to-basics rhetoric often crowd out ‘softer’ subjects, they might appeal only insofar as they encourage kids to ‘get themselves under control’ and sit still for a long-division lesson.

Her concluding paragraph captures an overarching conundrum of “progress”:

Technology-driven efficiency has achieved wonderful things. It has brought people in developed countries an astonishingly rich standard of living, and freed most of us from the work of growing the food we eat or making the products we use. But applying the metric of efficiency to the expanding field of emotional labour misses a key promise offered by technological progress – that, with routine physical and cognitive work out of the way, the jobs of the future could be opportunities for people to genuinely care for each other.

At some point, efficiency is no longer a “good”, it is a problem… and when we apply efficiency metrics to immeasurable qualities we can end up with superficial changes,  a veneer of empathy and not the genuiine caring for each other needed to move forward as a civil culture.

Still Think ESSA is a Good Idea? Three Stories Highlight Efforts to Erode Public Schools in Three Different States

July 7, 2017 Leave a comment

This morning’s in-box featured three stories describing how the erosion of public education is proceeding apace in three different states— MI, IN, and NY.

Two NPR stations offered brief print stories on the latest struggles for public education funding in Michigan, where it seems that the legislature is intent on funneling much needed money to parochial schools while simultaneously penalizing public schools who use funds to sue the state for the misuse of funding. At this juncture, the State’s efforts to fund parochial schools and shortchange public schools have been thwarted by the courts in response to a lawsuit filed by organizations funded by the local school districts. The legislature’s solution to this lawsuit? Use THEIR funds to appeal the lawsuit and pass a law that “…would penalize public schools that use state dollars for lawsuits against the state.”  Since one of the groups suing the legislature is the state-wide organization representing administrators, an organzation funded with dues paid by school districts, their head had a response:

Peter Spadafore is with the Michigan Association of School Administrators.  He said school districts have gone to court and won against the state on important issues.  This would put that ability in jeopardy.

Spadafore said, “You know I can see the spirit of this, but the idea here is really to tell school districts no they shouldn’t be suing the state.”

Or, more accurately, being told to sit down, shut up, and stop complaining. Hopefully elections in MI will turn the tide on this and both the US constitution that calls for a separation of church and state and the state constitution that calls for fair and equitable funding for schools will be honored.

Meanwhile in Indianapolis, Chalkbeat reporter Dylan Peers McCoy writes that the school board members, a majority of whom were supported and underwritten by “reformers” and StudentsFirst, is opening four new “innovative” charter high schools while simultaneously closing three traditional high schools due to low enrollment. If the charter schools were managed by the school district, there might be a way to make a straight faced argument for this shift, but the reality is that these innovation charters are not under the control of the local board… and the reason for this structure is explained in the article:

Advocates tout innovation schools as a tool for dramatically improving IPS. They are controversial, however, because they are a hybrid between charter and traditional public schools. IPS gets credit from the state for the test scores and other data from innovation schools, but they are managed by outside nonprofits or charter operators. Because teachers at the schools don’t work directly for the district, they are not part of the IPS union.

So while a greater number of Indianapolis high schoolers will presumably have more choices, it is clear that a greater number of Indianapolis teachers will work for less compensation and have less job security… and fewer “public” schools will be overseen by the elected school board.

And last but not least, StudentsFirst (recognize that name) NY’s Executive Director Jenny Sedlis is beaming in a picture in the NY Daily News with this caption: “Thanks to Albany leaders, productive conversations led to an agreement that’s good for all public school kids.” And why is she so happy? The headline for the story explains: “De Blasio’s extended control of Public Schools comes with a catch – expanding the charter sector and support for its students”. It seems that Governor Cuomo and the NY legislature are not happy with the mayor’s unwillingness to subsidize the charter schools by giving them free space and allowing them to expand into more venues in the city. Here’s the synopsis of the deal:

State charter authorizers will recycle and re-issue 22 licenses for city charter schools that had been revoked or awarded and never used, under the terms of the deal state lawmakers, Gov. Cuomo and education officials negotiated to extend de Blasio’s control of the city schools.

The deal also increases the city’s payments to charter operators for school facilities and provides MetroCards for charter school students whose classes begin before the start of the standard public school year.

So the STATE is diverting LOCAL funds to underwrite for-profit charters and requiring that LOCAL schools make space available FOR FREE to those same for-profit charters…. and both the State and the Mayor are characterizing this as giving the mayor “control” over the local schools. The concluding paragraphs of the story put this deal in context:

Some charter schools also receive significant financial support from billionaires in the hedge fund industry who have financed expensive lobbying and public relations campaigns against the mayor. Charter advocate and StudentsFirstNY executive director Jenny Sedlis called the deal a win for charter operators and their families.

“Charters have been battling with the de Blasio administration for the last four years, but thanks to Albany leaders, productive conversations led to an agreement that’s good for all public school kids,” Sedlis said. “Parents will have access to more school options and charter operators will get significant relief.”

If ALL parents had access to fully funded high quality schools staffed by fully qualified and experienced teachers this deal would be “good for all public school kids”… but when part of the deal is to siphon local funds to pay charter school operators those kids who are unable to make a choice suffer.

Taken together, these stories show what happens when control is devolved to the State and local level: there is a move toward privatization wrapped in the language of the marketplace and a move toward lower wages and less job security for teachers. Those who love the free-market gig economy are elated… but those of us who seek a fair and equitable level playing field for all children and parents are disappointed. Do you still think ESSA is a good idea?