Posts Tagged ‘Efficiency is the Enemy’

Disaster Capitalism Comes to Puerto Rico. Is ANYONE Surprised?

February 7, 2018 Leave a comment

When Hurricane Kartina hit New Orleans and forced the closure of all of the public schools in the city, then President Bush and his Secretary of Education seized on the disaster as an opportunity to “transform” the school district replacing the public school system overseen by an elected board with charter schools. Years later, despite evidence to the contrary, the GOP and the neoliberal “reformers” and researchers who supported then hailed this “revolutionary change” as unequivocally good, even though there was mounting evidence to the contrary.

Unsurprisingly, after Hurricane Maria devastated his island the Governor of Puerto Rico is now taking the same tack as the Bush administration took after Kartina, introducing a reform package that replaces the single school district that governs Puerto Rico’s schools with a voucher plan. As reported by Reuters writer Nick Brown,

Speaking in a televised address on Monday, Governor Ricardo Rossello also said every public school teacher in Puerto Rico would receive a $1,500 annual salary increase beginning next school year. It was unclear whether the pay bump would require legislation.

The governor’s remarks came 10 days after the island’s education secretary, Julia Keleher, said she planned to decentralize Puerto Rico’s education department and introduce “autonomous schools.”

The pay raise for teachers presumably will win their endorsement for this plan to introduce “autonomous schools”, but the AFT is not buying it:

The plan met with immediate scorn from the American Federation of Teachers, which represents 40,000 educators in Puerto Rico. AFT President Randi Weingarten told Reuters the plan “doesn’t add up,” saying salary bumps will do nothing without more investment in schools.

“There’s a lot of nice flowery language in here, but … you can’t actually do the things [Rossello] is talking about doing and still divert resources from public schools,” Weingarten said.

The voucher program, projected to begin during the 2019-2020 school year, would allow parents to choose public or private school alternatives, but may face legal hurdles.

Ms. Keleher has a daunting task given the fiscal issues facing Puerto Rico. She has generated considerable criticism before the Hurricane because she needed to close over 150 schools to help balance the budget and she had launched some decentralized BOCES-like service organizations across the state to help provide cost-effective support to the schools. But based on what I’ve read, her forte is applying spreadsheet analyses to the operation of schools in the name of efficiency… and efficiency is not necessarily a hallmark of democracy, though is seems to be an article of faith that it IS a hallmark of the marketplace…. and vouchers are the fastest way to impose market forces onto schools.

In the coming months it will be interesting to see if Puerto Rico moves ahead with it’s “revolutionary idea” or backs off because of the inevitable legal challenges it will face. Stay tuned.


Business CEO Who Avoid Taxes Castigate Government’s Failure to Fix Social Problems

February 3, 2018 Leave a comment

Having served on the Board of a regional health insurance consortium in New York State, I feel like I have a greater understanding of the health care problem than the average voter. And as one who led and consulted with public school districts for 35 years I have a sound understanding of the social issues children face in our world. And as one who believes that democracy can only thrive in a regulated and equitably taxed economy, I am deeply distressed over the direction our country is taking in its efforts to fulfill the mantra that “government is the problem” by starving it of resources. So I find it particularly galling to read an article like David Gelles’ recent NYTimes piece describing businesses as the salvation for health care and, presumably other social ills and infrastructure problems… especially when the article’s opening paragraphs read:

Can private businesses solve public policy problems better than the government? It’s a question that has persisted for decades and taken on new resonance now that a career businessman is in the White House.

There has never been a clear answer. For every sign of success — a smooth privatized toll road or a gleaming charter school — there have been obstacles revealing just how difficult public works can be.

And the final straw came when Mr. Gelles quoted Apple CEO Timothy Cook, he who failed to pay his fair share of corporate taxes, claiming “Government has “become less functional and isn’t working at the speed that it once was”

There was more to the article… but I confess that I stopped reading when I read that quote from Mr. Cook.


This Just In: Privatizing Profiteers Benefit from and Exacerbate Racial and Economic Segregation

January 20, 2018 Leave a comment

Yesterday’s Washington Post blog post by Valerie Strauss consists of an interview of author Nowile Rooks whose latest book, Cutting School, is summarized in one telling quote that leads Ms. Strauss’ post:

“If we as a nation really took seriously dismantling underperforming school districts and replacing them with the same types of educational experiences we provide the wealthy, it would negatively impact the bottom lines of many companies.” — Noliwe M. Rooks

In Ms. Strauss’ interview, Ms. Rooks provides a narrative on how segregation began after the Civil War, how it flourished and was supported by law until the mid-1950s, and how it continues today. But Ms. Rooks asserts that the privatization of public education has made the situation even worse, and that any policy that seeks to end segregation by race (or, by implication of her analysis, income) would likely run afoul of the investor class whose campaign contributions to conservatives and neoliberals ensure the perpetuation of our current system:

Students educated in wealthy schools perform well as measured by standard educational benchmarks. Students educated in poor schools do not. Racial and economic integration is the one systemic solution that we know ensures the tide will lift all educational boats equally. However, instead of committing to educating poor children in the same way as we do the wealthy, or actually with the wealthy, we have offered separate educational content (such as a reoccurring focus on vocational education for the poor) and idiosyncratic forms of educational funding and delivery (such as virtual charter schools and cyber education) as substitutes for what we know consistently works. While not ensuring educational equality, such separate, segregated, and unequal forms of education have provided the opportunity for businesses to make a profit selling schooling. 

Ms. Rooks coined a term for this phenomenon: “segrenomics”. And this paragraph on how it works could have been lifted from “Reinventing Government” or any treatise coming from libertarian think tanks:

I am calling this specific form of economic profit “segrenomics.” Children who live in segregated communities and are Native American, black or Latino are more likely to have severely limited educational options. In the last 30 years, government, philanthropy, business and financial sectors have heavily invested in efforts to privatize certain segments of public education; stock schools with inexperienced, less highly paid teachers whose hiring often provides companies with a “finder’s fee”; outsource the running of schools to management organizations; and propose virtual schools as a literal replacement for — not just a supplement to — the brick and mortar educational experience.

The attraction, of course, is the large pot of education dollars that’s been increasingly available to private corporate financial interests. The public education budget funded by taxpayers is roughly $500 billion to $600 billion per year. Each successful effort that shifts those funds from public to private hands — and there has been a growing number of such efforts since the 1980s — escalates corporate earnings.

In short, these privatized for-profit schools are designed to benefit shareholders first and foremost and if children learn as a result it is a collateral benefit.  Is there any way out of this trend given the money being spent by philanthropists and profiteers, the relentless message that privatized for-profit market driven schools are better than “government schools”, and the desire to keep taxes low at all costs? Ms. Rooks’ interview concludes with this:

In 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech entitled “Where Do We Go From Here: Community or Chaos?” I often reflect on his questions when thinking about where the contemporary paths we are traveling in relation to public education are leading. I think community or chaos are two potential destinations. We have to stop and reflect on where both our educational preferences and policies are leading us. We can either continue to encourage chaos by allowing our tax dollars to be used to educationally experiment on working class and poor children, and disrupt poor communities by closing schools, or we can embrace community by requiring that poor children are educated in the same ways as the wealthy.

The choices we make are will tell future generations much of what they will need to know about what our democracy means to us here in the 21st century.

I have been consulting in rural Vermont communities who are trying to answer a variation of this question. The legislature in Vermont passed a bill that encouraged town school districts to voluntarily merge into multi-town union districts where their local schools would be represented by regional boards instead of locally. This bill rightly assumes that a single merged K-12 district will provide greater efficiency and, thus, greater savings. But many town bridle at the changes that come with regionalization: they fear that their towns might ultimately lose their public schools, which serve as community anchors. The overarching question is one of efficiency versus community: do we want to save every dollar we can in the name of reducing costs, even if it means eliminating our community? It is clear that some Vermont towns do not want the state imposing a new definition of “community” on them in the name of efficiency. It is also clear that some suburban and exurban towns and urban neighborhoods do not want the state government or city government imposing a definition of “community” on them in the name of segregation. In both cases the hearts and minds of individuals need to be changed. I believe we need to expand our definition of “Community” to be as inclusive as possible without abandoning the traditions that make our local “community” unique. It CAN be accomplished if we lower our voices, soften our positions, and open our hearts and minds.


Technology is Fast and Cheap… but it Isn’t Good.

January 6, 2018 Leave a comment

Diane Ravitch’s posts yesterday included on that had a link to an article she wrote recently for EdSurge, a pro-technology website. In the article she identified five major risks associated with the use of educational technology. After reading her article I left this comment with a link to this post:

The tech industry is serving shareholders, politicians and, alas, voters who don’t want to spend more for education. Technology is currently cheap and fast… but it isn’t good.

A consultant whose name escapes me gave a presentation to the administrators in the MD district I served in the early 1990s. She wrote three words on the board (this was pre-powerpoint era): “fast”, “cheap”, “good”. She said that in any undertaking you could only choose two of these. (NOTE: I just learned from my friend “Google” that this is now called the “Iron Triangle”— and example of technology’s utility).

Technology promises to provide all three… but it really only provides “fast” and “cheap” means of covering the curriculum that is measured by standardized tests. It’s faster than the laborious face-to-face tutoring it supposedly replaces. Its’ cheaper because it lowers the costs to school districts by selling the data it collects to third parties. But because it is fast and cheap it isn’t good: it takes the “costly” human interaction out of teaching; it has a limited scope because it only delivers instruction in areas that can be measured by standardized tests; and it requires schools to compromise the principle of student and parent privacy in order to secure the low costs valued by politicians and voters.

Like Diane Ravitch and several of her commenters, I was an early adopter to technology applications. As a public school administrator I found technology a godsend for scheduling, tracking budgets, preparing cost-benefit analyses, calculating the impact of collective bargaining proposals, and especially for writing. And while the introduction of the internet was a mixed blessing (emails tended to eat into my daily schedule on the job and outside of it), it did provide a means of making every decision transparent and disseminating information rapidly. And as one who tends to think in bullet points and one who used an overhead projector as a teacher, I found powerpoint to be very useful in preparing presentations on everything from budgets and building projects to future directions I hoped we might be able to take.

But unlike Ms. Ravitch and her commenters, I was a school superintendent and, as such, witnessed the intense pressure to suppress costs while simultaneously introducing children in schools to the technology school board members and I were using every day on our jobs. One thing I learned was that the use of technology required some degree of standardization.. and some teachers and parents bridled at any form of standardization. In devising schedules and linking the schedules to computerized report cards, for example, I needed to demand that teachers re-name some of their courses to “fit” the fields “the computer” allowed. In implementing a computerized parent portal that enabled parents to monitor their child’s progress in various subjects periodically we needed to ensure that teachers entered grades into their grade books regularly and not at the very end of the grade period. In collective bargaining, we needed to make certain both parties were using the same spreadsheets to calculate the impact of changes in compensation. Each of these “standardization” efforts resulted in faster and more efficient operations… but whether it was BETTER was debatable in the minds of some people in virtually every case.

My bottom line is that the effectiveness of technology is limited by the factory paradigm we insist on retaining in public education. As long as we group children by age and measure their progress by tests that are linked to their cohort group we will continue to mis-use and abuse technology. The ideals espoused by progressive educators like John Dewey are not based on operating an “efficient” (i.e. cheap and fast) system in the fashion the industry leaders envisioned at the turn of the 20th century. We need to let children roam free in the real and virtual worlds and not be limited to pre-programmed electronic worksheets that quickly and inexpensively move them through a standardized curriculum. Doing so might be slower and/or more expensive than what we are doing now, but it would be better.

A Homeschooler’s Analysis of Public Education is On Target… The Consequences, though, Might Not Be What He Expects

January 3, 2018 Leave a comment

Alternet managing editor Chris Sosa wrote a blog post today titled “I Was Homeschooled and I Believe in Public Schools- Here’s What Needs to Change About Them”. In the post, Mr. Sosa offers a concise history of public education in our country and recounts his personal experience as a homeschooler, contrasting his experiences with those of his age cohorts.

In Mr. Sosa’s narrative of public education, schools as we know them today emerged as a result of the nation’s desire to educate former slaves at the conclusion of the Civil War. But, as he concludes, the effort to standardized schooling had at least one unintended consequence: it dampened creative thinking:

Booker T. Washington, a former slave, established a movement to train black Americans as teachers that eventually led to the creation of numerous state universities. But in the 1890s, a standardization effort emerged that resulted in what we now know as the K-12 schooling system, including grade levels and accreditation. American education efforts in the late 1890s are nothing short of impressive in that they emerged from the rubble of a civil war. But almost 130 years later, we’re living with the same system.

Throughout the 1900s, efforts to standardize and further hone and improve this system continued. From desegregation to school lunches, the system evolved to meet the needs of a diverse and rapidly growing citizenry. But one element was lost amid this growth: a recognition that the system itself was designed to stabilize a rocky nation, not foster creativity or critical thought as culture rapidly evolved.

Mr. Sosa then describes the misguided efforts of NCLB, RTTT, and ESSA to “reform” public schooling in light of our nation’s failure to surpass other countries on international assessments. Drawing from a recent book by  journalist Greg Toppo, Mr. Sosa makes the case that the problem with schools today isn’t poor teaching, it’s the system itself:

Our public schools suffer from an authoritarianism problem. We need to start addressing it today. A true embracing of creativity, as opposed to obedience, requires a cultural change. The federal government won’t solve this by default. We need to vote for reformers who understand the problem, foster inquisitiveness in young people who cross our paths and join school boards ourselves in locations where schools are producing mathematically-challenged robot children.

Mr. Sosa sees that such a shift is plausible. While I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Sosa’s assessment of what’s wrong with public education… I don’t see evidence that those who are opting out are doing so for the reasons Mr. Sosa’s mother chose to do so. Indeed,recent NCES surveys indicate that 80% of homeschoolers are “concerned about the environment in schools”, 67% want to provide moral instruction, and 51% want to provide religious instruction. Only 39% opted out of public education to pursue a “non-traditional” approach. If public education reformed in the fashion Mr. Sosa and I desired, by compelling students to dig deeper into the basis for their beliefs, it would not surprise me to see more parents expressing “concern about the environment in schools” and seeking ways to provide moral and religious instruction.

Despite that misgiving, I would love to see public schools abandon the standardized testing regimen that reinforces the compliance and narrow gauge instruction Mr. Sosa’s mother and 39% of other homeschoolers wanted to avoid…. and I join him in his desire to see states and local school boards promoting policies that move us away from producing mathematically-challenged robot children and instead producing self-actualized learners who question everything.

Elizabeth Mason Posits Three Ways AI Could Remove Poverty… One Looks Promising, All are Chilling and Unlikely

January 2, 2018 Leave a comment

Yesterday’s NYTimes featured a thought provoking article on the promise of AI in addressing the intractable problem of poverty by Elisabeth A. Mason, the founding director of the Stanford Poverty and Technology Lab and a senior adviser at the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality. Ms. Mason posts three ways AI could help address the three underlying causes of poverty: joblessness; lack of education; and dependence on government programs. Of the three ideas Ms. Mason presents, I completely agree with her ideas about education but found her ideas about joblessness and welfare chilling.

First, Ms. Mason’s thoughts on how technology could assist education mirror mine, which, naturally, makes them appealing to me. She suggests that AI could be used to completely differentiate instruction, matching learning preferences to each child and pacing instruction in a fashion that enables all students to progress through the curriculum successfully. Here’s her description of how we currently treat students in K-12 schools and how AI might help:

We bundle students into a room, use the same method of instruction and hope for the best. A.I. can improve this state of affairs. Even within the context of a standardized curriculum, A.I. “tutors” can home in on and correct for each student’s weaknesses, adapt coursework to his or her learning style and keep the student engaged.

Today’s dominant type of A.I., also known as machine learning, permits computer programs to become more accurate — to learn, if you will — as they absorb data and correlate it with known examples from other data sets. In this way, the A.I. “tutor” becomes increasingly effective at matching a student’s needs as it spends more time seeing what works to improve performance.

I do NOT believe “machine learning” can replace teachers. But I DO believe “machine learning” can provide a better means for students to master hierarchical subjects like mathematics and basic science, rule-based topics like grammar, and skill development that is acquired through repetition. That, in turn, could free teachers to cultivate higher order thinking skills and develop interpersonal skills.

Ms. Mason’s idea for job-matching and welfare reform, though, are problematic. For job creation she asserts that AI is ideally suited for matching job seekers with job vacancies and further contends that AI can “…take the guesswork out of which jobs are available and which skills workers need to fill them.” As for welfare reform, Ms. Mason believes AI can “…predict which programs help certain people at a given time and to quickly assess whether programs are having the desired effect.

My problem with these algorithmic “solutions” is that they all require the collection and storing of massive amounts of data by a third party who would, presumably, use the data to achieve noble purposes. In the world as I know it now, I would expect our legislators to see the private sector as the ideal collector and manager of data, which would provide some corporation with a wealth of data that could be used to advance the unending consumption of resources so that corporations could achieve ever higher profits. Moreover, in their desire to achieve profits, I doubt that shareholders would place the public well-being over earnings. If that was the case currently, there would be no poverty or joblessness.

As an educator who has espoused individualization of instruction since I attended graduate school in the early 1970s, I despair at the idea of changing the existing paradigm of schooling where, as Ms. Mason describes, “we bundle students into a room, use the same method of instruction and hope for the best.” As long as we group students by age cohorts and use some form of standardized tests to measure their progress we will never achieve the kind of individualization Ms. Mason advocates.

Finally, as one who believes that AI could be used for beneficial ends, I despair even more that our current government dismisses evidence-based decision making… and that use of evidence-based decision making is at the heart of Ms. Mason’s conviction that AI has promise. Here’s her argument, presented near the end of her article:

Even Congress occasionally wakes up from its partisan slumber to advance the cause of technology in public policy decision-making: In 2016, Congress voted for and President Barack Obama authorized the creation of the Commission on Evidence-Based Policy Making. The act creating the commission was sponsored by Senator Patty Murray, a Democrat, and Paul Ryan, the House speaker. Before the commission expired in September 2017, it used government data to evaluate the effectiveness of government policy and made recommendations based on its findings.

This just in, Ms. Mason: the commission expired in September and none of its recommendations have been heeded, no laws have been introduced to implement any of the recommendations, and scores of evidence-based concepts have been abandoned by the current administration.

In the end, I do not see much promise in “evidence based” decision making, particularly if we maintain the toxic partisanship in our government and in our media coverage. In general, people can only absorb evidence that confirms their beliefs and validates their personal experiences. Until voters are willing to open their minds to the possibility that the narratives the political parties are promulgating are invalid, we will continue to muddle along basing our conclusions about “what works” on the convictions we hold.

Laura Chapman’s Analysis of Trojan Horse Organizations Funded By Billionaires Raises a Question

December 30, 2017 1 comment

Yesterday’s posts by Diane Ravitch included a recounting of an analysis done by blogger Laura Chapman that described how billionaire reformers create faux grassroots organizations or “partnerships” in cities where the reformers want to offer or expand for-profit charter schools. These organizations all have high-minded mission statements and often have catchy names like “Boston Schools Fund, Empower Schools” or “Accelerate Great Schools” Cincinnati, OH) or “Great Public Schools Now (LA)”, but their ultimate goal, in Ms. Chapman’s concise terms, is “to eliminate democratically elected school boards and fold public schools into a portfolio of contract schools that receive public funds but are privately operated.

As I read this post, it raised one question that has been troubling me for months: Why don’t progressives fund at least one “think tank” that espouses the benefits public funding for public projects? Where is the pushback against the neo-liberals who ceded ground on government programs when Bill Clinton and Al Gore “reinvented government” in the 1990s? Where is the coordinated pushback against the charter movement  launched by NCLB and reinforced by RTTT? Where is the Progressive’s analog to the Powell Memorandum that laid out the case for less government and offered a blueprint to make it happen? Instead of pushing back against the anti-government and pro-business positions taken by the right wing of the GOP, the Democrats moved the “center” by embracing the privatization ideas put forth in Osborne and Gaebler’s book Reinventing Government.

Here’s a message that I believe progressives need to broadcast: incompetence and corruption occurs in all organizations but is less likely to occur in organizations whose books are open to the public and whose actions are reasonably regulated. By transferring public projects and the operation of public enterprises like education to the private sector, the government is eliminating the opportunity for public scrutiny. By passing legislation that deregulates the private sector in the name of supporting free enterprise, the government is compromising the safety of workers and the general public. By enabling businesses to place a higher value on shareholders than employees, the government is suppressing wages, withholding benefits, and diminishing the well-being of citizens.

Democracy operates at a much slower pace than business and the flaws of public enterprise are widely known because public enterprise operates in the sunshine. The movement to “reinvent” government by privatizing inefficient operations or introducing competition to seek lower costs is a movement away from democracy and a movement away from fair treatment of employees. When the operation of school lunches, for example, are turned over to the private sector, those businesses are answerable to shareholders. Those businesses turn a profit by lowering wages and benefits, cutting as many corners as possible in portion sizes, and eliminating “inefficiencies” like home made soups and breads. The taxpayers love the lower costs, the shareholders love the higher profits, and the administrators who oversee the program love the reduction in headaches. The only losers are the children and the employees.