Posts Tagged ‘Efficiency is the Enemy’

We DO Want and Value Student Engagement… But Do We REALLY Want High-Tech Headbands

November 14, 2017 Leave a comment

On the premise that a picture is worth a thousand words, I encourage you to look at the picture that tops this post from EDSurge before reading my reaction. The picture of children in white uniforms wearing electronic headbands with beaming smiles looks like something illustrating a Kurt Vonnegut short story about Diana Moon Glompers, the Handicapper General… and the explanation of the apparatus these “happy children” are wearing is even more chilling. Here are the opening paragraphs from Sydney Johnson’s post:

If Blade Runner had a classroom scene, it might look something like the promotional video by BrainCo, Inc. Students sit at desks wearing electronic headbands that report EEG data back to a teacher’s dashboard, and that information purports to measure students’ attention levels. The video’snarrator explains: “School administrators can use big data analysis to determine when students are better able to concentrate.”

BrainCo just scored $15 million in venture funding from Chinese investors, and has welcomed a prominent Harvard education dean, who will serve as an adviser. The company says it has a working prototype and is in conversations with a Long Island school to pilot the headset.

The headband raises questions from neuroscientists and psychologists, who say little evidence exists to support what the device-and-dashboard combination aims to do. It also raises legal questions, like what BrainCo will do with students’ biometric data.

BrainCo has some big ideas. The company’s CEO has said that BrainCo aims to develop a tool that can translate thoughts directly into text, or “brain typing.” To support that work, the company plans to use data collected from students using its headsets to compile “the world’s largest brainwave database.”

Theodore Zanto, a professor of neurology at the University of California at San Francisco, had two words when he first read through the company’s website: “Holy shit.”

Holy shit indeed! As one who can type fairly fast but can think even faster, I confess I am intrigued by the idea of “brain typing”… but as one who worked in public education for decades I also confess to having deep misgivings over the notion that children in a Long Island school district are serving as guinea pigs for an experiment for a company called “BrainCo”… a company that we learn later in the article is funded by Chinese investors!

But BrainCo has bigger ideas than “brain typing”. Read on:

“Our goal with the first 20,000 devices, each of which will be used by multiple students in schools, is to capture data from 1.2 million people,” (BrainCo CEO) Han said in the interview. “This will enable us to use artificial intelligence on what will be the world’s largest database to improve our algorithms for things like attention and emotion detection.”

In the closing paragraphs of the post, titled “Blurry Vision”, Ms. Johnson summarizes about one major issue BrainCo needs to address– privacy:

(James) Ryan, the company’s adviser and Harvard’s dean of education, is aware that BrainCo wants to pilot Focus EDU on students. But as for any data and privacy protections underway at the company, he says “I don’t know, I haven’t had a conversation with Max [Newlon] about it.”

Meanwhile, BrainCo’s CEO did not respond when asked in an email about the lack of privacy regulations in place. And when EdSurge asked to try out one of the Focus EDU headsets, BrainCo also declined.

The wild ambition of selling brain-reading headbands to schools—which are charged with protecting students—seems to raise a range of concerns, including deeply philosophical ones. How far should schools go to “train” students?

We’re about to enter an era of driverless cars and robots are already assuming more and more jobs and responsibilities that were formerly restricted to live human beings. How far DO we want to travel down the road of brain mapping? And if we DO travel down the road, will we all be wearing white uniforms and wearing headbands?


Personalized Learning Requires a Change of Thinking About Time

October 31, 2017 Leave a comment

Earlier this month, Julia Freeland Fisher published a thought provoking article for the Christensen Institute Newsletter suggesting that personalized learning can only work if educators and policy makers shed their notions about time. Ms. Fisher notes that in many cases when an innovative technology is introduced, instead of replacing and old way of doing business the organization adds a new layer… in much the same way a bookkeeper who worked for me in the early 1980s persisted in keeping books in a handwritten ledger at the same time as she entered data on the “newfangled” computer. She writes about how this applies to schools who are introducing personalized learning:

This is especially true for traditional systems that may be aiming to adopt new approaches to teaching and learning but less willing to do away with legacy structures. Innovation theory shows us that in industry after industry, existing organizations often default to hybrid innovations that combine new technologies or approaches with old ways of doing business. Put differently, rather than actually making any real tradeoffs, organizations may start doing new things without stopping doing old things.

Ms. Fisher contends that personalized learning that is enhanced by technology will only work if schools abandon one of their deeply held legacies: the time paradigm.

Although schools may manage to add more time on the margins, personalized learning at scale will likely require a massive rethinking of how schools use time, alongside pursuing new efficiencies that can save time. I was reminded of this while reading Silicon Schools’ recent report on its past five years supporting new and redesigned schools in the California Bay Area. In it, the fund’s leaders share actionable insights about the promise and pitfalls of personalized approaches. Among these takeaways, the word “time” appears a total of 39 times in the report’s 27 pages.

Specifically, the report highlights a vital reality on the ground: how schools use time is a balancing act. The report enumerates tradeoffs schools personalizing learning have had to weigh: how much time students should spend working on their own versus in groups; how much time students should be in front of screens versus offline; how much time students should work on content that is at versus above their current instructional level.

Ms. Fisher outlines several ways time can be used more efficiently and different kinds of software products that can facilitate the different uses of time. But ultimately, Ms. Fisher’s advocacy for changing the time paradigm falls short of the mark in one important aspect: she still implies that time will be constant for learners batched in age cohorts. If schools want to truly personalize learning they will need to abandon the legacy structure that insists on grouping students in age cohorts and having them complete curricula based on moving in a lockstep time frame based on objectives linked to those cohorts. Technology makes this possible… but the mental model of the factory school must be abandoned before it can take place.

Commodification of Education Corrodes Democracy

October 20, 2017 Leave a comment

Henry Giroux, the McMaster University Chair for Scholarship in the Public Interest in the English and Cultural Studies Department and the Paulo Freire Distinguished Scholar in Critical Pedagogy, posted an essay in Truthdig  earlier this week that makes the case that the commodification of education is corroding democracy. Titled “Rethinking Higher Education in a Time of Tyranny“, Mr. Giroux offers six action steps higher education should take to offset this disturbing trend.

After opening his essay with a description of how activists like Martin Luther King Junior and Mahatma Gandhi viewed education, Mr. Giroux suggests that the plutocrats running our country have willfully undercut the mission of higher education by converting it into a commodity, and in so doing have undercut the democracy that requires a well-informed electorate. This lengthy excerpt offers a concise and compelling description of what has transpired over the past five decades:

Institutions that work to free and strengthen the imagination and the capacity to think critically have been under assault in the United States long before the rise of Donald Trump. Over the last 50 years, critical public institutions from public radio to public schools have been defunded, commercialized and privatized transforming them from spheres of critical analysis to dumbed-down workstations for a deregulated and commodified culture.

Lacking public funds, many institutions of higher education have been left to mimic the private sector, transforming knowledge into a commodity, eliminating those courses and departments that do not align themselves with a robust bottom line. In addition, faculty are increasingly treated like Walmart workers with labor relations increasingly designed “to reduce labor costs and to increase labor servility.” Under this market-driven governance, students are often relegated to the status of customers, saddled with high tuition rates and a future predicated on ongoing political uncertainty, economic instability and ecological peril.

This dystopian view feeds an obsession with a narrow notion of job readiness and a cost-accounting rationality. This bespeaks to the rise of what theorists such as the late Stuart Hall called an audit or corporate culture, which serves to demoralize and depoliticize both faculty and students, often relieving them of any larger values other than those that reinforce their own self-interest and retreat from any sense of moral and social responsibility.

As higher education increasingly subordinates itself to market-driven values, there is a greater emphasis on research that benefits the corporate world, the military and rich conservative ideologues such as the Koch brothers, who have pumped over $200 million into higher education activities since the 1980s to shape faculty hires, promote academic research centers, and shape courses that reinforce a conservative market-driven ideological and value system…

Under such circumstances, commercial values replace public values, unbridled self-interest becomes more important than the common good and sensation seeking and a culture of immediacy becomes more important than compassion and long term investments in others, especially youth…

As Mr. Giroux notes at the beginning of this analysis: Institutions that work to free and strengthen the imagination and the capacity to think critically have been under assault in the United States long before the rise of Donald Trump. Indeed, the Obama administration advocated a system of “grading” post secondary institutions on the earnings of its graduates, effectively reinforcing the obsession with a narrow notion of job readiness and a cost-accounting rationality the Mr. Giroux rightfully decries. In response to this trend of commodification, Mr. Giroux offers six recommendations.

First he recommends that higher education “reassert its mission as a public good”. At every turn, those involved in any capacity in higher education need to make it clear that the politician’s and business community’s “obsession with a narrow notion of job readiness and a cost-accounting rationality” is wrongheaded and counter-productive. 

Second, “…educators need to place ethics, civic literacy, social responsibility and compassion at the forefront of learning.” Post-secondary education needs to be about more than getting a good job or earning more and moe money. It needs to focus on creating “…critically engaged and informed citizens contributing not simply to their own self-interest but to the well-being of society as a whole.

Third, our nation needs to view higher education as a right… not something for “the elite” and not a commodity that requires students to go into debt. Moreover, higher education should value and emphasize what Mr Giroux calls a “culture of questioning“.

Fourth, students need to learn how to express themselves and not regurgitate data and master algorithms.

Fifth, higher education needs to restore the status of teaching as a profession and not as a contracted service. Mr. Giroux notes that in America, the corporatization and commodification of higher education has resulted in a situation where “…Seventy percent of all part- and full-time instructional positions are filled with contingent or nontenured-track faculty“. This is efficient from a business-office perspective, but results in a de-professionalization of higher education.

Finally, Mr. Giroux recommends that students be encouraged to develop and use their imaginations: to envision a future that is “…more than a mirror image of the present.

Mr. Giroux concludes his essay with this quote from James Baldwin:

In The Fire Next Time, he writes: “The impossible is the least that one can demand. …Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them…. the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.” It is one of tasks of educators and higher education to keep the lights burning with a feverish intensity.

When post-secondary education is about earnings, it does not encourage us to keep faith with one another. It, instead, encourages us to blindly compete with one another and, in so doing, turns out the light of compassion that will join us together.

DeVos/Trump USDOE’s Penchant for Negotiated Settlements on Civil Rights Requires Oversight and Follow-up… Which are in Short Supply

October 7, 2017 Leave a comment

Thursday’s Politico Morning Education News Feed by Benjamin Wermund with help from Caitlin Emma and Michael Stratford described the Trump/DeVos USDOE’s penchant for negotiated settlements in civil rights cases. The Politico writers report:

The Trump administration has ended more than 700 civil rights investigations through a negotiation process concluded with so-called “302 agreements.” Under these agreements, the school agrees to make changes and the Education Department ends the investigation but says it will keep an eye on the school to make sure it falls in line.

Politico indicates these “302 agreements” are not a new feature, but the increase in their use is notable… and every indication is that their use will accelerate in the months ahead.

The (Trump) administration had resolved 706 civil rights complaints this way as of Aug. 29, according to records obtained by POLITICO. Under the Obama administration, the Office for Civil Rights resolved 462 cases this way through all of last year, according to the records. In 2015, it resolved just 387 complaints this way. The Trump administration had begun negotiations on, but had yet to resolve, 168 more cases as of Aug. 29. The bulk of them – 130 negotiations – started after Candice Jackson, the department’s acting civil rights chief, issued a June 8 memo telling civil rights investigators to take a smaller scope in their investigations. The memo also gave regional civil rights offices more autonomy by scrapping a requirement for the D.C. office to sign off on cases.

The Trump?DeVos USDOE  administration is spinning the increase in “302 agreements” as a means of achieving expedited settlements, settlements that do not result in resolutions being dragged out for years.

“The Office for Civil Rights is working to make sure that justice is no longer unduly delayed for students who have filed civil rights complaints,” Liz Hill, an Education Department spokeswoman, said. “OCR is pursuing a longstanding tradition of reaching voluntary resolution agreements with institutions willing to address civil rights concerns that ensure appropriate policy changes and remedies in individual cases.”

Politico quoted civil rights activists who were distressed over the pace of “302 agreements” because they felt such agreements diminished the depth of the investigations and assumed a higher degree of innocence on the part of institutions…. and there is ipso facto evidence of such handling.  As Politico noted in earlier reports:

DeVos’ Education Department had closed more than 1,500 civil rights complaints at the nation’s schools – including dismissing more than 900 outright – in the two months since her acting civil rights chief took steps to reduce a massive backlog.

As one who is concerned with the pending budget cuts to USDOE in the name of “efficiency” I wonder how the USDOE can possibly “keep an eye on the school to make sure it falls in line” given the marked increase in “302 settlements”. My hunch is that not only will they be unable to monitor these settlements, they will be unable to investigate future ones… and I don’t think the Trump/DeVos administration sees this as a “bug”… they view it as a desirable feature.

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.