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Posts Tagged ‘Efficiency is the Enemy’

Extra-rational Motivation vs. Material Interests in Capitalism… and in Schooling

April 10, 2019 Comments off

A recent Evonomics blog post by Peter Turchin, “Does Capitalism Kill Cooperation?”,  examines our current economy and describes the corrosive effects of competition and the benefits of collaboration. At the end of his analysis, he concludes that innovation and the resulting economic growth that stems from innovation is NOT the result of competition– the desire to win—  but rather the result of “extra-rational” motivation.

He opens his post with this description of the current mindset of economists:

Milton Friedman, of course, always argued that economic agents should strictly follow their material interests;there is no place for “extra-rational motives” in business. Most economists today feel the same way, although few are willing to state it as boldly as Friedman did.

Mr. Turchin acknowledges that in many– if not most— cases people make economic decisions based on optimization: they want to get the most value for the lowest cost possible. But he goes on to note that at the systems level capitalism operates differently, emphasizing that capitalism has been successful as a system because it promotes innovation:

But capitalism is not just about buying and selling things—people have been doing commerce for millennia before capitalism. Surely the amazing capacity of capitalism to transform knowledge into innovation, and innovation into economic growth is one of the central of its attributes? So let’s talk about such successful innovation hotspots, as the Silicon Valley. What are the motivations driving successful entrepreneurs within such hotspots?

Mr. Turchin then answers this question using the findings of Victor Hwang and Greg Horowitz whose recent book The Rainforest: The Secret to Building the Next Silicon Valley examines the characteristics of regions where innovation is prevalent. And here’s what they found:

A central theme that recurs throughout the book is that successful entrepreneurs, and the successful innovation systems in which they operate, such as the Silicon Valley or Route 128 in Massachusetts, are the antithesis of the rational businessperson postulated by Branko (a Friedman acolyte) one who is solely motivated by money. In fact, “Rainforests [their term for successful innovation systems] depend on people not behaving like rational actors.” “For Rainforests to be sustainable, greed must be restrained.” “Predatory venture capitalists might win a few in the short run, but they do not last long in the business and are unable to build lasting firms.”

Extra-rational motivations—those that transcend the classical divide between rational and irrational—are not normally considered critical drivers of economic value-creation. …  These motivations include the thrill of competition, human altruism, a thirst for adventure, a joy of discovery and creativity, a concern for future generations, and a desire for meaning in one’s life, among many others.Our work over the years has led us to conclude that these types of motivations are not just “nice to have.” They are, in fact, “must have” building blocks of the Rainforest.

Hwang and Horowitz identify four recommendations to create the “Rainforests” that result in innovation:

First, diversity, which brings people with very different knowledge and skills together, such as a scientist, a venture capitalist, an engineer, a sales specialist, and an administrator (a CEO).

Second, extra-rational motivations, because self-regarding rational actors are simply unable to cooperate to launch a successful innovation enterprise.

Third, social trust, because successful cooperation is the only way to beat the terrible odds against a successful innovation startup, and cooperation requires trust.

Fourth, a set of social norms that regulate the behavior of various cooperating agents, and willingness both to follow them and to enforce these rules by various sanctions.

After listing these recommendations, Mr. Turchin concludes his post with this:

In other words, Hwang and Horowitt describe a system that uses precisely the same components to bring about cooperation that have been studied in other settings (a foraging group, a military troop, a religious sect, and a state), and in the abstract, by cultural evolutionists.

The Rainforest, then, provides ample empirical material to reject the theory that economic growth, which is based on innovation, is moved by self-interested rational agents. But—and it was one of the real eye-openers for me—it also explains why this is so.

The notion that extra-rational motivations are “must haves” in the Rainforest and the four recommendation offered by Mr. Hwang and Horowitt resonate with me. And they underscore my belief that our public school “system” is based on the wrong premises. Indeed, they currently operate on the opposite set up. They are not diverse, they focus on competition and individual performance over collaboration and group performance, they have rules imposed with no input from students or, in some cases, from staff members, and— as a result— there is no effort to create social norms based on consensus.

Politicians, parents, businessmen and voters all seek to have schools that create innovative and caring graduates who can function effectively in our economy and our democracy. If we want that end, we might consider following the recommendations for creating a “Rainforest” instead of staying with our current system that sorts and selects based on a factory model.

 

A Predictable Meltdown Results When a Former Investor in For-Profit Schools Oversees the Dismantling of Regulations Governing Those Schools

March 8, 2019 Comments off

NYTimes reporters Stacy Cowley and Erica Green describe the rapid meltdown of a college chain that resulted when Betsy DeVos aggressively deregulated post secondary schools in the name of giving “new life” to an industry that was “on its heels” during the Obama administration. And why was it on its heels? Because, as the Obama administration’s Department of Education recognized, the profiteers who operated private (mostly proprietary) colleges misled students who went deeply in debt to get the education they understood they needed to be successful in the global economy. The students never got their degrees because the colleges did not have the wherewithal to provide the education they promised. When the Obama administration fined the colleges to help pay back either the students’ personal loans or the government who provided loans for the schools the profiteering colleges either went out of business or transferred their ownership to a different entity. The winners in all of this were the investors and the college administrators who received unseemly high salaries. The losers were the students who hoped to better themselves only to find themselves deep in debt. I am certain that the laissez faire capitalists will shrug their shoulders and say that’s the way the market works: caveat emptor! One can only hope that every disaffected student will at least learn that the policy of deregulation— UNDER-governing— is the problem and not the government itself. But that unit was probably not included in the introductory economics courses offered.

One Phrase Explains Demise of Alternative Colleges: “…a Desire for a Higher Return on Investment”

March 4, 2019 Comments off

I have a soft spot in my heart for so-called “alternative colleges”, a soft spot born from my own personal experience as an undergraduate and my older daughter’s experience as a student at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA and my younger daughter’s experience at Amherst College.

As one who valued hands-on experiential learning and the opportunity to develop one’s own curriculum, I stumbled into an ideal situation as an undergraduate at Drexel University. When I entered Drexel, it was an “institute of technology” like it’s more famous role model Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It differentiated itself from other “institutes of technology” by offering a five year work-study program that enabled undergraduates to work six-month stints in industry where they could see how the abstract coursework they were completing in the classroom translated to the workplace. When I enrolled, I intended to pursue engineering, but after two six month assignments at the Ford Motor Company and increasingly daunting and uninteresting coursework in mathematics and science I decided to change majors to Commerce and Engineering— a hybrid major Drexel offered to disenchanted and/or challenged engineering majors who wanted to pursue a degree that would prepare them for the workplace at that time. While I found the coursework much more interesting and upgraded my cumulative average, after a successful six-month period at Mobil Oil, I turned down an offer to return there because I had decided to become one of the first students to enroll in Drexel’s fledgling “Humanities and Technology” college— an undergraduate degree that Drexel needed to offer in order to become a university instead of an institute of technology. My plan was to major in English, teach in the City, and find my way to a leadership role in that organization instead of climbing the corporate ladder. While my classmates dreamed of becoming CEO of their own business or of an existing Fortune 500 company, I dreamed of being Superintendent of Schools in Philadelphia.

As a new student in a new and as-yet-undefined program, I was able to design my own major for my final two years. I took a heavy load of poetry, literature, and history courses, was tutored in the design of standardized tests by Drexel’s lone psychometrics professor, and dabbled in introductory courses in biology and pure mathematics (as opposed to the five calculus and many physics and chemistry courses I took as an aspiring engineer) in order to broaden my opportunities for education certification. I also spent three months as a student teacher in English at West Philadelphia HS. When I graduated, I had sufficient courses to be certified in English, social studies, science, and mathematics. Since Pennsylvania only allowed a prospective teacher to have two certificates, my academic advisor recommended that I get certified in English and mathematics. But more importantly, I had a sense that I had in some sense controlled my destiny for the previous five years.

When my daughters were selecting a college to attend, they leaned toward schools that did not have distribution requirements and allowed undergraduates to take a wide array of courses. My older daughter specifically sought out unconventional schools that would allow her to pursue coursework based on her own interests. The colleges we visited included some liberal arts schools that had distribution requirements, but also included Antioch in Ohio and The Evergreen State College in Olympia WA, the school she ultimately selected. My younger daughter was more interested in attending a school that would nurture her desire to become a writer, which led us to visit Brown, Wesleyan, and Amherst where she ultimately enrolled.

Given my personal experiences as an undergraduate and the fact that their mother majored in art as an undergraduate and was working as a fabric artist at the time they were aspiring to college, we supported the idea of them attending liberal arts colleges. We both recognized that once they obtained degrees they would be able to find their way in the world… and, from my perspective, if they could effectively design their own course of studies they would have a sense of agency that many college students who follow a prescribed curriculum lack.

With all of this as a backdrop, I was saddened to read Anemona Hartocollis’ article in today’s NYTimes that one of the groundbreaking “alternative colleges”, Hampshire, was on the verge of closing its doors. The reason?

The problems alternative colleges face point to a larger crisis in higher education: a shrinking college-age population, especially in the Northeast and Upper Midwest, where many of these institutions are clustered. But they are also confronting a growing skepticism of the liberal arts, often a focus of nontraditional programs, and a desire for a higher return on investment.

The shrinking college-age population is a demographic reality, but the notion that college attendance is based on a “return on investment” is a mental construct that exemplifies everything that is wrong with traditional education and the so-called K-12 “reform” movement that perpetuates traditional schooling. A quote from Eva-Maria Swidler, a faculty member at Goddard College, an alternative college in Plainfield, Vermont, offers the best insight on the current state of affairs in undergraduate education:

“What I see happening under the aegis of ‘financial responsibility’ is a purging of colleges that serve unconventional students….What this purge leaves behind is a system of higher education even more focused on either training only the elites in the liberal arts or training everyone else as obedient workers for a corporate work force.

The call for students to be “ready-for-work” creates a demand for cookie-cutter curricula that prepare undergraduates for job vacancies that exist today but are unlikely to exist in the future… and by obediently completing these prescribed course sequences undergraduates who aspire to get a good “return on their investment” are denied the opportunity to control their own destiny, to learn-how-to-learn, to have any sense of agency, or be prepared for an ambiguous future.

Education is not intended to “prepare students for work”… it is, in the words of John Dewey, “life itself”. I did not realize it when I entered college, Drexel was following Dewey’s admonition:

Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results.

I doubt that John Dewey ever uttered the phrase “return on investment”… indeed, I cannot think of any respected education philosopher who ever used that phrase. Nor did any creative genius.

As Congress Cut Staffers and Leaned on Lobbyists, So Did State Departments

January 19, 2019 Comments off

Diane Ravtich wrote a post yesterday that drew heavily from a Washington Post column by a veteran congressman who was lamenting the gutting of congressional staffers who used to provide both sides of the aisle with factual reports on information and data they could use to make informed decisions and write well crafted legislation. The Congressman noted that as they lost this resource, the private sector filled in with lobbyists who could “helpfully” write legislation and regulations. The result was the de facto privatization of legislation.

As I noted in a comment I left, in a parallel universe, beginning in the late 1970s State Departments of Education began hemorrhaging expertise in the same way. When I began my career as a Superintendent it was possible to call someone in the State Department who could offer guidance on an array of issues from staff development to transportation to school construction to curriculum. While many of us in administration and many school boards lamented the “bureaucrats in the State Department”, it wasn’t until they were cut from the State budget and/or retired that we began to realize what we missed. One of the reasons the Common Core was appealing to Governors was that it provided off-the-shelf “expertise” from contractors. So instead of having to hire staff who understood curriculum, the districts could call a 1-800 number and talk to someone who worked for a vendor to get the information they needed. The ultimate result of State Department cuts, then, was an open door for the Common Core vendors to replace the “bureaucrats at the State Department”.

Smaller school districts in particular need expertise in many areas… and if that expertise is not available at the State level they will outsource it elsewhere. Cutting “bureaucrats” opens the door for privatization of expertise… and lobbyists and salespersons are very happy to offer it.

Limited and Potentially Pyrrhic Victory in New New Jersey’s Use of PARCC Tests as Graduation Standard

January 1, 2019 Comments off

Diane Ravitch reported in a blog post yesterday that the NJ appellate court prohibited the use of the PARCC test as a graduation standard, declaring at the end of the post that the ruling meant that a summative test, like the PARCC, could no longer be used as a graduation standard…

In reading a report on the ruling from New Jersey 101.5, a radio station in that state, it is evident that the victory against PARCC was more limited:

The court decision on New Year’ Eve may mean that the state will have to retool its testing plans altogether. The three-judge panel said the PARCC regulations violate state law requiring that a graduation test be administered in 11th grade. The PARCC regulations, on the other hand, require a language arts test in 10th grade and an Algebra I test in any year.

The state law requires a single graduation test for 11th grade students, but the PARCC regulations require multiple end-of-course exams.

The judges also found that the PARCC regulations do not allow students to retake the exams or provide non-standardized-testing alternatives in the way the law requires…

Although the lawsuit filed Latino Action Network, the Latino Coalition of New Jersey, the Paterson Education Fund, the NAACP New Jersey State Conference, and the Education Law Center claimed that PARCC discriminated against poor and minority students because of its costs, the judges did not address that controversy, focusing instead on how the regulations violated the Proficiency Standards and Assessments Act enacted in 1979 and amended in 1988.

The act requires that a graduation test be given to all 11th grade students and to any 11th grade and 12th grade student who had previously failed it. Seniors who failed the test but otherwise met all credit and attendance requirements could graduate after completing an alternative assessment that was not a standardized test.

Under the regulations implemented by the Christie administration, students in the 2020 graduating class would have to take end-of-course PARCC exams for all their courses with alternative options for students who failed the 10th grade language test and the Algebra I test.

So… the legal issue wasn’t the use of a summative assessment designed to spread students on a bell curve, it was that PARCC’s regulations conflicted with the State’s regulations requiring that standardized graduation tests be administered in 11th grade , that re-takes be allowed, and that an alternative assessment would be put in place to offer those students who failed the test to complete an “alternative assessment”.  This narrow ruling does not overturn the use of a test to determine if a student graduates… it only requires that the test be administered in a single grade level AND that students be provided with an alternative assessment should they fail the standardized assessment… And there is another alternative: the law dictating the use of tests could be amended to conform to PARCC’s standards OR amended to eliminate the use of standardized testing altogether.

Make no mistake, the court ruling is a victory– albeit a narrow one– for those who oppose the use of high stakes tests… but the months ahead will determine if it is a real victory or a Pyrrhic one.

Open a Charter… Follow the Rules… Rake in the $$$: Nice Work if You Can Get It…. and in Arizona You Can!

December 8, 2018 Comments off

In “How to become a charter school millionaire in 5 easy steps? Ask Eddie Farnsworth“, AZ Central reporter Laurie Roberts describes how Arizona GOP legislator Farnsworth made millions on a charter school he operated by following the rules enacted by the legislature he served in. What are the steps?

No. 1.   Set up charter schools. Collect state money to run the four-school operation then pay yourself $170,000 a year, more than competing school districts with double or more the schools.

No. 2.   Set up a non-profit to buy your schools for $56.9 million. Fill the board with pals and lobbyists whose bills you supported in the state Legislature. Pocket $13.9 million from the sale.

No. 3.   Get that non-profit board to hire your brother to run the publicly funded charter operation. And, oh yeah, to hire you to serve as a consultant.

No. 4.   Continue to rent space to house the schools’ corporate headquarters – at market rate, of course – to score another $79,600 a year.

No. 5.   Loan the charter operation $2.8 million – 60 days’ operating cash – and proceed to collect $478,000 in interest over the next seven years.

As Ms. Roberts indicates in her article, it is unfair to single out Mr. Farnsworth since many others are making millions in the same way. But in my judgment Mr. Farnsworth deserves particular scorn since he is in a position to address some of Arizona’s laws that make this kind of scamming possible.

 

Philanthrocapitalist Reed Hastings’ View of Public Schooling Will Widen Divides

November 9, 2018 Comments off

Reed Hastings, libertarian founder of Netflix and leading funder of the charter school movement in California, has a warped view of public education, one that if brought to scale would undercut public education’s role as a force for equity.

“Reed Hastings: Netflix CEO Goes Nuclear on Public Schools” a lengthy profile of Mr. Hastings by Joel Warner that appeared earlier this month in Capital & Main, describes Mr. Hastings desire to completely destroy the existing governance structure of public schools by replacing elected boards of education with corporate boards who oversee schools that consist largely of internet streaming sites that operate something like Netflix, the corporate he knows best and sees as the best way forward in all operations. In the article Mr. Warner describes how Reed Hastings earned his first millions and decided to use his new found wealth to invest in charter schools:

After the success of his first start-up, the debugging program maker Pure Software, made him a multimillionaire in 1995, Hastings decided to use some of his wealth to tackle the problems he saw in the nation’s schools. “I started… trying to figure out why our education is lagging when our technology is increasing at great rates and there’s great innovation in so many other areas—health care, biotech, information technology, moviemaking,” he told the Wall Street Journal. “Why not education?”

Mr. Warner describes how his decision to tackle education combined with his libertarian beliefs led to his determination to overthrow the governance model for public schools. That, in turn, led him to donate huge sums to the charter school movement and, as a by product, to political campaigns of like-minded politicians in California. ultimately, Governor Grey Davis, who benefitted from Mr. Hasting’s contributions and agreed with the need to privatize public education, appointed Mr. Hastings to the Chairmanship of the State Board of Education in 2000, where Mr. Hastings had a short-lived opportunity to put some of his ideas about public education into policy… and some politicians found his ideas abhorrent:

While president of the board, he aggressively pushed for English-language instruction for immigrant students, adopting a policy that limited federal funding for elementary schools that weren’t teaching at least two-and-a-half hours in English every day. That rule, later overturned, was part of what education observers say was a lengthy dismantling of California’s bilingual education programs. Hasting’s stance on the matter caused Democratic legislators to block his reappointment in 2004, despite the fact that he was a key Democratic donor. “Just because [Hastings] and right-wing Republicans thought it was a good idea to force immigrant children to speak only English in school, he gets to derail bilingual education for a decade?” says Karen Wolfe, a California parent and founder of PSconnect, a community group that advocates for traditional public schools. “That’s not disruption. That’s destruction.”

Mr. Warner describes how Mr. Hastings vision for dismantling the existing governance structure of public education will have an adverse impact on economically disadvantaged families. Quoting Derecka Mehrens, co-founder of Silicon Valley Rising, a campaign to raise pay and create affordable housing for low-wage workers in the tech industry, he writes:

“We see profound consequences, both political and economic, when technology industry leaders take action from a position of privilege and isolation from the very communities they desire to help,” she says. “When tech industry leaders like Reed Hastings call for an elimination of school boards or for more privatization of public schools, they block low-income people from using the one instrument that the powerful can’t ignore – their vote.”

After recounting several examples of charter school failures and several studies that underscore the limitations of technology when it comes to solving the kinds of problems students bring with them to school, Mr. Warner concludes with this:

Undeterred (by these evident shortcomings), Hastings and other school reform-minded tech billionaires want to inject the start-up mentality into the country’s schools, using high-tech solutions to replace human labor and disrupting longtime management and oversight approaches in the name of efficiency.But to Brett Bymaster in San Jose, that’s not the right approach. After all, roughly half of all start-ups fail. What happens to the children who get caught in those failures, like the students left without a school when California Charter Academy folded?

“I have been through several successful Silicon Valley start-ups. I am as techy as they come,” says Bymaster. “But ultimately the problems in our schools are people problems. Technology doesn’t solve people problems. People solve people problems.”

And that phrase… people solve people problems… captures the limitations of technology when it comes to addressing the inequities in our society and restoring public schools to their rightful place as a means of overcoming adversity. Increasing the screen times of children raised in poverty to match that of children raised in affluence will NOT address inequity. Public schools will improve only when they are given the means of addressing “people problems”.