Big Data and Little Children: A Potent Combination for Learning… or Marketing… or Controlling – Part One
Thanks to two links to posts by Robert X. Cringely provided by Naked Capitalist blogger Lambert Strether I now have a better understanding of the history of and potential of Big Data as it applies to public education. The posts are lengthy and detailed, but not so technical I felt overwhelmed… and clearly written enough that I could see some promising… and frightening… links between Big Data and public education and see how my own experiences in public schools linked to the evolution of Big Data.
Part One of Cringely’s synopsis of Big Data provided a history of data collection from the beginning of mankind to 1996. Outlined below are some excerpts from that first post that I found pertinent. The first one describes where we stand today in terms of data being collected about us as citizens… and why that data is being collected:
Wherever you are in the world, computers are watching you and recording data about your activities, primarily noting what you watch, read, look at, or buy. If you hit the street in almost any city, surveillance video can be added to that: where are you, what are you doing, who or what is nearby? Your communications are monitored to some extent and occasionally even recorded. Anything you do on the Internet — from comments to tweets to simple browsing — never goes away. Some of this has to do with national security but most of this technology is simply to get you and me to buy more stuff — to be more efficient consumers. The technology that makes all this gathering and analysis possible was mainly invented in Silicon Valley by many technology startup companies.
Cringely’s post also includes the most concise definition of Moore’s Law I’ve read:
Moore’s Law. As computers were applied to processing data their speed made it possible to delve deeper into those data, discovering more meaning. The high cost of computing at first limited its use to high-value applications like selling airline seats. But the advent of solid state computers in the 1960s began a steady increase in computing power and decrease in computing cost that continues to this day — Moore’s Law. So what cost American Airlines $10 to calculate in 1955 was down to a dime by 1965, to a tenth of a penny by 1975, and to one billionth of a cent today.
This effect of Moore’s Law and — most importantly — the ability to reliably predict where computing cost and capability would be a decade or more in advance, made it possible to apply computing power to cheaper and cheaper activities. This is what turned data processing into Big Data.
Cringely’s history of data collection showed how an alliance between American Airlines and IBM in the 1950s led to the development of main frame computing and that, in turn, evolved into increasingly faster and cheaper means of collecting and processing data, leading to the development of “business intelligence” by software pioneer Oracle:
Oracle… enabled… not just more flexible business applications, but whole new classes of applications including human resources, customer relationship management, and — most especially — something called business intelligence. Business intelligence is looking inside what you know to figure out what you know that’s useful. Business intelligence is one of the key applications of Big Data.
(Amazon founder Jeff) Bezos — a former Wall Street IT guy who was familiar with all the Business Intelligence tools of the time, wanted a system where the next time you logged-in the server would ask “are you still looking for long underwear?” It might even have sitting in your shopping cart the underwear you had considered the last time but decided not to buy. This simple expedient of keeping track of the recent past was the true beginning of Big Data.
This was 1996… where Part One of Cringely’s analysis ends… where public education is just now…. but more on this in Part 3 of these posts….
David Brooks Celebrates Human Nature’s Natural Compassion, Overlooking Conservatism’s Natural Darwinism
David Brooks, an orthodox old-school conservative, seems incapable of connecting his humanity with his political thinking. In today’s column, “The Power of Altruism”, he offers several examples of research that demonstrates the fundamental compassion that humans possess and then laments that selfishness is viewed as the primary motivation for human behavior. He writes:
When we build academic disciplines and social institutions upon suppositions of selfishness we’re missing the motivations that drive people much of the time.
Worse, if you expect people to be selfish, you can actually crush their tendency to be good…
To be a good citizen, to be a good worker, you often have to make an altruistic commitment to some group or ideal, which will see you through those times when your job of citizenship is hard and frustrating. Whether you are a teacher serving students or a soldier serving your country or a clerk who likes your office mates, the moral motivation is much more powerful than the financial motivations. Arrangements that arouse the financial lens alone are just messing everything up.
Given the research cited in this column and this compelling paragraph, how can conservatives like Mr. Brooks possibly believe merit pay for teachers is a good idea? CAn’t they see that by encouraging teachers to earn more money by virtue of increasing test scores they are making an altruistic profession into a utilitarian one. They are, in Mr. Brooks’ words, “manipulating an institution that arouses the moral lens” and converting into one that is based solely on bloodless test scores. As a result, neoliberal and conservative “reformers” are creating a school culture that is “less cooperative, less trusting, less effective and less lovely.”
As a result of the “reform” movement we are taking children who are naturally caring and converting them into young social Darwinists who want to build their resumes so they can get into good colleges and earn lots of money. When will we collectively realize the damage we are doing to children as a result of this ‘reform” and cultivate the caring nature of children instead of feeding their competitive fire? Given the recent passage of ESSA and the desire to measure the effectiveness of post-secondary education based on earnings I don’t expect to see a change any time soon unless opinion writers like Mr. Brooks come to their senses and begin advocating a more humanitarian approach to education.
While I find Bill Maher more crude and cruel with his humor than Jon Stewart, I often find him to be every bit as insightful… and with a moderate degree of trepidation I share this Youtube of his monologue on “Labs of Democracy”, which DOES include some crude language and one reference to drugs. If you want to avoid the vulgarity, cover your ears at the 2:45 and 3:25 mark and assume that Bill Maher really DOES love to grow archives in his basement:
As political junkies know, the Conservatives in the Republican party have used the “Labs of Democracy” concept to encourage the transfer of key decisions regarding the treatment of immigrants, the provision of funding for basic services, and the creation and enforcement of regulations to States. One state, California, has demonstrated the failure of “tickle down” economics and the demonization of immigrants. At least two other states, LA and KS, have reinforced the failure of cutting taxes in the name of “opening their sites for business”… but WI, MI, IL, OH, PA, NJ could easily be added to that list and only MN can show that the opposite approach— rating taxes and expanding voting rights— boosts the state coffers and well being.
As readers of this blog know, I fear that the “Labs of Democracy” argument is being used to promote ESSA’s “trickle down” theory for public schools… and the neoliberal wing of he Democratic party is happy to support that notion in the name of “bi-partisanship” (or, more cynically, in the name of increasing their donor base among the hedge funders who want to privatize “failing” public school districts that serve urban children). And though the test-and-punish method of accountability has a failure rate that mirrors that of trickle-down economics, it goes hand-in-hand with the tax cutting ideals of the conservatives because privatized schools operate “more efficiently” than public schools and thus reduce the tax burden on the private sector.
And as Bill Maher explains in his crude but direct way, we’ve run experiments on “trickle down” economics and “democracy” and the results are in: taxing the rich works; opening our doors to immigrants works; and regulating energy works. He could have run the same vignette on public education and illustrated that accountability based on standardized testing DOESN’T work… Maybe it will take another decade of ESSA to make this point. But in the meantime, another generation of children will be subjected to more teaching to the tests because adults are unfamiliar with the scientific method.
This morning I read articles about Oklahoma’s decision to cut over $38 million from public schools, a WA state superintendent suggesting public schools should close in protest to their legislature’s decision to not meet his State’s constitutional mandate to fund schools, and the continuing budget battles in several state legislatures and county districts. The “starve the beast” theory seems to be working in public education the same way Yves Smith described the process in her introduction to an Alternet article in yesterday’s Naked Capitalism blog:
The TSA is a perfect target for privatization, since even at the best of times, it is not well liked. Who wants to be subjected to security theater like taking your shoes off? But this article provides an important overview of how various government functions are made incompetent by cutting their budgets without reducing their duties. That plays into the popular narrative that of course the private sector would be more “efficient” when the evidence is strongly supports the view that private sector contractors treat privatization as an opportunity for looting (contracting in the Iraq War was an extreme case, but there are plent of others, such as privatization of parking meters in Chicago and toll roads).
In the case of public education, its budgets are being cut while its duties and expectations are being increased! And, as endless posts on this blog and even more posts on Diane Ravitch’s blog report looting is continuing apace in public education and especially in the for-profit post-secondary schools where students are encouraged to charge their schooling on credit cards and required to sign agreements stating they cannot participate in class action suits. And in case you haven’t figured it out, here’s the privatization playbook as told to Alternate writer Michale Arria:
Noam Chomsky once described what he considered to be the standard technique of privatization: “defund, make sure things don’t work, people get angry, you hand it over to private capital.” Writing about the fight against TSA unionization in 2011, Mark Ames and Yasha Levine cited Scott Walker’s battle against Wisconsin workers as a valuable insight into how airline fights would go down:
1) Manufacture a fake budget crisis in order to frighten the state’s residents; 2) PR the false-crisis hard enough until it breaks out of the right-wing/libertarian pipeline and into the mainstream media; 3) Blame the fake crisis on a fake villain—“greedy” state employee unions—thereby pitting the public against state workers. That way, when Republicans pass new laws destroying teachers and firefighters unions, they’ll come off as heroes defending the public from greedy unions, rather than as sleazy mercenaries carrying out their corporate sponsors’ dirty work.
To many, it seems that’s the blueprint currently at work. On May 26, CNN ran an op-ed California Representative Darrell Issa calling for the privatization of the TSA. Issa wrote that:
“Ultimately, allowing private companies to take over administration of our airports’ security, under the TSA’s guidelines, would unleash the markets’ power of innovation to improve customer service and undo years of bureaucracy that has squandered billions of dollars dedicated to airport security and done much to make traveling more miserable.”
If this playbook sounds familiar, you HAVE been paying attention to the legislators behind the curtain who are doing everything possible to make public education look incompetent while propping up for-profit privatized services that do the job no better but cost less.
Valeria Strauss’ latest Washington Post column was given over to James Meredith and his co-author William Doyle who have just published a book excoriating our country’s direction in public education. “A Mission from God: A Memoir and Challenge for America” describes civil rights leader Meredith’s newest mission: to improve public education for all children. Meredith sees us headed in the wrong direction when it comes to educating our children, especially those who are economically disadvantaged… and he casts the blame on the testing regimen imposed by those favoring standardization:
We are in a dark age of American public education. We are losing millions of our children to inferior schools and catastrophically misguided and ineffective so-called education reforms that are wasting billions of dollars, destroying the teaching profession and causing widespread chaos in public education. We are, in effect, destroying the future of our republic.
Our public school children, rich and poor, do not need toxic stress, unqualified temp teachers, unreliable and universal standardized tests, system-wide disruption, eliminated arts and recess, excessive screen time, and schools forced to compete with each other instead of collaborate. There is no evidence that any of this improves learning, yet this is what we are forcing on our nation’s children.
If Mr. Meredith wants a different story about public education he only needs to read main stream newspapers that parrot the conventional wisdom that public education is failing because it is not exposed to market forces, because it is not rigorous enough or does not hold each child to a high standard of behavior, because we don’t use enough technology, and mostly because we have overpaid teachers who don’t work hard enough because they are protected by their unions that establish needless rules and red tape that block the kind of disruptive changes that have increased productivity in other parts of the economy. And how do we know schools are failing? Not because the students are disengaged, not because the graduates are directionless, but because students are failing unreliable and universal standardized tests.
Meredith’s ideas about improving public education are different from that proposed by “reformers” who define success based on teaching to standardized tests:
I support equitable public school funding for all children based on need, democratic local control of schools, and well-resourced schools run by experienced educators.
I support giving all children, rich and poor, what they need to learn best: highly respected and highly qualified teachers; small class sizes; a rich, developmentally-correct curriculum; daily assessments by teachers — and not standardized tests by faceless screens; a strong early education that includes learning through play; regular breaks and physical activity; a classroom atmosphere of safety, encouragement, diligence, warmth and respect for children as cherished individuals; a screen-free “digital oasis” when appropriate; social support services when necessary — and a home environment rich in reading, conversation, respect, and proper nutrition and sleep from birth through adolescence.
The right to fail is just as important as the right to succeed: children must be encouraged to experiment and to learn from their intellectual mistakes and failures without punishment. They must be free to be children.
We all must work together to improve our public schools, not on the basis of profit or politics, but on the basis of love and respect for all of America’s children, especially those with extra needs.
In her introductory paragraphs, Ms. Strauss offers a brief biography of Mr. Meredith, who is now 80 years old. He spent nine years in the Air Force, was the first black student to enter and graduate from the University of Mississippi, and later earned a law degree from Columbia. On a one man “Walk Against Fear to highlight racism in the South and encourage voter registration” he was shot but survived. His voice, alas, is drowned out by the likes of Bill Gates, Eva Moskovitz, and other billionaires who advance an agenda that suggests students lack grit and teachers lack vigor and if only both parties would apply themselves our scores on tests would improve. Their fast, cheap, and easy fix has pushed us back to a nation of re-segregated schools that make it increasingly difficult for children of color and children raised in poverty to succeed. We need to heed the call of leaders like Mr. Meredith who stand against profit and politics that are driving the agenda of public education and stands for the love and respect for all of America’s children, especially those with extra needs.
Buzzed reporter Molly Hensley-Clancy’s recent article, “Making the Grades”, describes how a non-profit school in CA recruited unqualified but affluent foreign students seeking entry into the United States, offered them a low quality low cost education, and raked in money for the “administrators” who operated the institution. Hensley-Clancy describes the scam the “college” set up in these paragraphs:
Spending millions on foreign recruiters, Northwestern Polytechnic University enrolls 99% of its students — more than 6,000 overall last year — from overseas, with little regard for their qualifications. It has no full-time, permanent faculty, despite having a student body larger than the undergraduate population of Princeton.
The school issues grades that are inflated, or simply made up, so that academically unqualified students can keep their visas, along with the overseas bank loans that allow the students to pay their tuition. For two years, top college administrators forbade professors from failing any students at all, and the university’s president once personally raised hundreds of student grades — by hand.
Those false credentials are all the students need to stay in the country. Many seek jobs in the tech industry, and their degrees allow them to remain working in the U.S. for years, avoiding the scrutiny of immigration officials that would have come if they had applied for a standard work visa.
The university operates as a nonprofit, with all the tax benefits that status confers. But its assets, which topped $77 million in 2014, have enriched the family that has controlled it for decades. The school has purchased homes for family members to live in, one of which cost more than $2 million. When it comes to educating students, however, NPU has spent astonishingly little. The $1.5 million it paid for a home occupied by the executive vice president and his family was more than it reported spending on the combined salaries of the school’s entire faculty and staff in 2014.
Even the university’s academic accreditation — which the school relied on in order to admit a flood of foreign students — is suspect: When the accreditor came for a site visit, the university staged a Potemkin village of a college, enlisting instructors to pretend they were full-time professors, prepping students with false answers to inspectors’ questions, and once even hiring a fake librarian.
The article then goes on to describe how a toxic combination of deregulation and/or underfunded regulation enabled the college to make a bundle of money without providing a sound education for its students. The accreditation process, intended to ensure that a post-secondary institution is providing a quality education, is deeply flawed:
Oversight of American higher education rests in large part on a group of independent watchdogs called accreditors, whom the government entrusts to vet a school’s academics and student performance. Schools that win the accreditors’ approval reap significant benefits: They can tap into the trillion-dollar federal student loan system, and, more importantly for Northwestern Polytechnic University, they can sponsor American student visas — a highly sought-after commodity across the world — with minimal oversight.
(B)ut accreditors are private entities, and despite their effect on public funds, there is little oversight of the work that they do. Schools choose which accreditor they wish to be judged by, and many institutions shop around in search of the one they feel will view them in the most favorable light.
This oversight model sounds familiar to anyone who followed the housing crash. So if the accreditors are suspect, couldn’t the governing board of the institution have done something? Couldn’t the federal government have done something?
A truly independent board of directors could have held NPU to its financial responsibilities to its students. (NOTE: The “board” consists of three individuals, all of whom benefit from the current set-up as elaborated in the article) The Internal Revenue Service might have been able to force some changes, too, if it had investigated the claims that NPU made on its financial disclosure forms. And the Department of Homeland Security could have, as well, if it had looked into the circumstances by which, somehow, every last one of NPU’s students managed to get the good grades that their visas required.
Yes, all of the regulatory agencies could have “done something” if they had sufficient staffing. But they don’t because they are woefully underfunded. The losers in this are not just the immigrant students who are awarded worthless diplomas: they are the citizens of our country who are denied employment opportunities and the taxpayers who underwrite the college that invests the revenues from this scam into strip malls and condominiums. But our current Congress doesn’t want to tithe hands of entrepreneurs with “red tape” and regulations… better to let the market sort things out and if a college fails and students can’t pay the loans back to banks, no worry… we’ll bail out the banks and punish the students. We’ve seen this movie before and we’ll see it again until we decide that paying nickels and dimes for independent government oversight is better than paying billions for bail outs….
Difficult to Measure NON-COGNITIVE Capacities FAR More Important Than Easy to Measure Academic Skills
Paul Tough’s column in today’s NYTimes, “To Help Kids Thrive, Coach Their Parents” describes research that demonstrates the importance of non-cognitive capacities developed in the first two years in life and implies that our scarce resources might be spent more wisely if we invested in coaching parents instead of teaching “academic skills” to Prekindergarten students.
Mr. Tough defines non-cognitive capacities as:
…a set of emotional and psychological habits and mind-sets that enable children to negotiate life effectively inside and outside of school: the ability to understand and follow directions; to focus on a single activity for an extended period; to interact calmly with other students; to cope with disappointment and persevere through frustration.
He then writes:
These capacities may be harder to measure on tests of kindergarten readiness than skills like number and letter recognition, but they are inordinately valuable in school, beginning on the first day of kindergarten. Unlike reading and math skills, though, they aren’t primarily developed through deliberate practice and explicit training. Instead, researchers have found, they are mostly shaped by children’s daily experience of their environment. And they have their roots in the first few years of life. When children spend their early years in communities and homes where life is unstable and chaotic — which is true of a disproportionate number of children growing up in poverty — the intense and chronic stress they often experience as a result can seriously disrupt, on a neurobiological level, their development of these important capacities.
Mr. Tough doesn’t say so, but this paragraph summarizes why the effects of poverty are clearly NOT “an excuse” for teachers who deal with the challenges these youngsters bring with them when they begin school and throughout their years in school. If a child does no know where they will be sleeping, does not know whether they will have a meal at home, does not know one or more of their parents, is unsure if their parent will be sober, is fearful of what might happen to them on the walk to and from school, there life is, by any definition, “unstable and chaotic”. How can a teacher pretend this is not the case and insist that the child experiencing this outside of school “focus” on “deliberate practice and explicit training” in cognitive skills like reading and mathematics?
Near the end of his essay, Mr. Tough describes a pre-school in Chicago that has created a “virtuous circle” in the classroom where teachers create “…a calm, consistent classroom experience for children: setting clear routines, redirecting negative behavior, helping students manage strong emotions.” But such a classroom requires more than a teacher. Mr. Tough notes that:
Mental-health professionals are also assigned to work in each classroom, but they are concerned as much with the mental health of the teacher as with that of the students… (and) the support and counsel of the mental-health professional assigned to the class helps teachers stay calm and balanced in the face of the inevitable frustrations of teaching a group of high-energy 4-year-olds.
Mr. Tough doesn’t say so explicitly, but the facts he presents makes it clear that intervention at age four is far more complicated and costly than intervention with parents during the first two years of a child’s life. And the facts he presents also make it clear that to help children raised in poverty succeed in school more that “good teaching” is required. His essay concludes with this description of the vicious circle often created when understaffed schools try to cope with the effects of poverty:
Nurturing the healthy development of infants and children, whether in the home or in the classroom, is hard and often stressful work. What we now understand is that the stress that parents and teachers feel can in turn elevate the stress levels of the children in their care, in ways that can undermine the children’s mental health and intellectual development. The good news is that the process can be reversed, often with relatively simple and low-cost interventions. To help children living in poverty succeed, our best strategy may be to first help the adults in their lives.
What we also understand is that this problem cannot be fixed by measuring cognitive skills and using direct instruction to improve those skills. It requires wraparound services for the parents and teachers— the adults in the lives of the children… and that, in turn, will require a larger investment in social services as well as schools.