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What Do You DO When an Algorithm Discriminates Based on Race? In the Trump Administration You Protect the Algorithm

August 23, 2019 Comments off

The NYTImes’ Emily Badger wrote an article on the new, subtle method of housing discrimination: algorithms. In her recent Upshot article titled “Who’s to Blame When Algorithms Discriminate” she describes how bankers and real estate agents use algorithms to reinforce segregated housing patterns and deny African Americans an equal opportunity to get decent housing. The way HUD pushed back against these in the past was to develop rules that made it more difficult to claim innocence when “disparate impact” occurred. She writes:

Federal law prohibits not just outright discrimination, but also certain policies and decisions that have a “disparate impact” on groups protected by civil rights laws. It may be illegal, in other words, to design a rental app that has the effect of excluding minorities, even if no one meant to discriminate against them…

Housing discrimination today is largely a matter of such cases: ones where there is no racist actor, no paper trail of intent to discriminate, but where troubling disparities emerge between different classes of people… 

“People don’t just say the things they used to say,” said Myron Orfield, a law professor at the University of Minnesota who directs the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity there.

But some statistical patterns speak just as loudly.

“A black household that makes $167,000 is less likely to qualify for a prime loan than a white household that makes $40,000,” Mr. Orfield said, citing analysis of public mortgage data by the institute. “That looks funny. What the banks say in these cases is, ‘It’s the credit histories, and our models explain the differences.’ But you can’t look at those models. They’re proprietary.”

The Obama administration wrote rules that placed the onus for proving non-discrimination on the loaner or renter. Unsurprisingly, the Trump administration is taking a different view:

The Department of Housing and Urban Development published a proposed rule on Monday significantly raising the bar for housing discrimination claims that rely on such evidence…

By raising the bar for such claims, the new rule would make it harder to hold banks accountable if their underwriting algorithms repeatedly deny mortgages to seemingly qualified black families, or if city zoning laws that make no mention of race still have the effect of racially segregating neighborhoods.

Fair housing advocates see these new rules as onerous and undercutting the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and the guidelines that have been in place since then.

“The problem that we have is that more and more, industry players are relying on artificial intelligence,” said Lisa Rice, the president of the National Fair Housing Alliance. “They’re relying on machine learning. They’re relying on algorithmic-based systems for more and more of the functions of the housing market.”

Online ads for rental housing are targeted in ways that mean, for example, that African-American would-be tenants may never see them. Decisions are based on credit scores that perceive families who use payday lenders — who are more likely to be African-American — as having no credit at all.

“We’re just learning what the impacts are of these things,” said Greta Byrum, co-director of the Digital Equity Laboratory at the New School. “That’s why we’re seeing this battle to set policy precedent. HUD I think is trying to get ahead of what everyone is seeing on the horizon now as a big fight to set policy around algorithms.”

In the end the losers in this are the children whose parents want to move into a neighborhood or community where schools are better and services are more robust… but whose parents may never see ads for houses in those neighborhoods due to their online profile and the algorithms used based on that profile… and having banks and renters wash their hands of the problem by claiming: ‘It’s the credit histories, and our models explain the differences.’ But you can’t look at those models. They’re proprietary.” They may be proprietary… but they are also racist if they result in disparate treatment and they should be thrown out if that is the case. We can’t claim to be a fair and just society where everyone has an equal opportunity if we let propriety software deny access to good housing, good schools, and good neighborhoods. But from the Trump administration’s perspective, this is not a software bug… it’s a software feature.

My Answer to an Internet Meme About the First Day of School

August 14, 2019 Comments off

A FaceBok friend posted a meme that suggested these questions to replace the traditional “What Did You Do Over the Summer”?

  1. What do you LOVE learning about?
  2. What do you most look forward to this school year?
  3. What are three awesome things about yourself?
  4. What is the one thing you’d like your teacher and classmates to know about you?
  5. What is something new you’d like to make, create, try, build and/or learn about?

Here are my answers to these based upon the way schools are now:

  1. What do you LOVE learning about? I LOVE preparing for standardized tests
  2. What do you most look forward to this school year? I can’t wait to spend time on my laptop! 
  3. What are three awesome things about yourself? I am really good at video games; I love YouTube; I can hack your computer
  4. What is the one thing you’d like your teacher and classmates to know about you? I cam make sure everyone in class gets straight A’s on their report card 
  5. What is something new you’d like to make, create, try, build and/or learn about? I want to build a robot friend I can talk to….

Welcome back… and smile for the cameras in the hallways, be nice to the good guy with a gun, and don’t make any jokes. This is also good training for future travel…

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The Question NEITHER Party Wants to Answer: Why are We Spending $649,000,000 to Subsidize on Fossil Fuel?

July 14, 2019 Comments off

Yesterday I read a CNN headline (that could have appeared in any mainstream media outlet) reporting that Secretary of Treasury Steve Mnuchin is alarmed that the US is experiencing a ballooning deficit. This is not a surprise to anyone who passed basic Economics class.  There is no real world evidence that the trickle down theory of economics, the beloved paradigm of the libertarian wing of the GOP, results in economic growth and lots of real world evidence showing that it inevitably leads to a point where politicians must choose between cuts to government programs or cuts to the safety net.

Today I read a June 12 article by Forbes writer James Ellsmore, an article I wrote about a few weeks ago from a purely educational perspective. Titled “US Spends Ten Times More on Fossil Fuel Subsidies Than Education”, Ellsmore’s article has a clear link to schooling. But upon re-reading the article it is evident that the US is not alone in making this subsidy and underspending on education is the least of the problem:

A new International Monetary Fund (IMF) study shows that USD $5.2 trillion was spent globally on fossil fuel subsidies in 2017. The equivalent of over 6.5% of global GDP of that year, it also represented a half-trillion dollar increase since 2015 when China ($1.4 trillion), the United States ($649 billion) and Russia ($551 billion) were the largest subsidizers.

The largest governments in the world are spending more and more money subsidizing an industry that marketed a de facto drug— fossil fuel— to the world knowing that in doing so it was damaging the planet possibly beyond repair. At the same time, these same nations supported environmental deregulation that enabled these fossil fuel pushers  to pollute the air and waters with impunity while enacting labor “reforms” that stripped workers in all parts of the economy of benefits, suppressed their wages, and prevented them from banding together.

China and Russia are not democracies and never have been. It is not news that their governments are operating at the behest of a small group of oligarchs. The US has been a highly functioning democracy, one that has balanced the needs of consumers and citizens with the needs for profits. But instead of marketing democracy to the world, we are marketing capitalism. We are willing to see China and Russia as “trading partners” in order to ensure that our businesses can “compete in the global marketplace”… and we’ve been willing to bargain away our democracy in order to satisfy the needs of a small group of businessmen who promote expansion of their businesses at the expense of civilization and the health of the planet.

And what would happen if the money spent on fossil fuel subsidies disappeared? Where could that money be spent?

IMF leader Christine Lagarde has noted that the investments made into fossil fuels could be better spent elsewhere, and could have far reaching positive impacts: “There would be more public spending available to build hospitals, to build roads, to build schools and to support education and health for the people. We believe that removing fossil fuel subsidies is the right way to go.

And if what if that money had been spent on subsidies for renewable energy instead of fossil fuel?

Had nations reduced subsidies in a way to create efficient fossil fuel pricing in 2015, the International Monetary Fund believes that it “would have lowered global carbon emissions by 28 percent and fossil fuel air pollution deaths by 46 percent, and increased government revenue by 3.8 percent of GDP.”

So.. why isn’t our country debating these subsidies? The GOP is clearly and unequivocally in support of the status quo in terms of energy use and the Democratic National Committee has declared the topic of climate change as “of limits” in their debates. Why?

Readers can draw their own conclusion. When I am try to answer this question through an optimistic lens, I believe that both political parties are focussed too much on the sacrifices we might have to make as a nation if we shift away from fossil fuel and not emphasizing the opportunities that would be available if we made such a decision. The fossil fuel industry, who wants to maintain the status quo in our energy policies and spending patterns, promotes the notion that any rapid shift away from their products will destabilize the economy and require the imposition of more government regulations and higher taxes on carbon products. Meanwhile, those who want seek to expand the use of renewable energy try to “out-fear” the fossil fuel promoters, emphasizing a future of weather catastrophes and hardship. As long as the arguments are framed in this fashion there is no upside to debating climate change. In my optimistic moments, I want to believe that some Presidential candidate will re-frame the debate and focus on the potential benefits of addressing climate change. The funds that would be available for public spending to build hospitals, to build roads, to build schools and to support education and health for the people, the jobs that would be created if we subsidized renewable energy over fossil fuel, and the clean air and water that would be sustained if we continued enforcing the environmental regulations put in place. When I answer this question through an optimistic lens I believe that given the facts voters will support a shift of our subsidies away from fossil fuel toward renewable energy and democracy will prevail.

When I try to answer this question through a pessimistic lens, though, I believe that both parties are beholden to the fossil fuel donors who have made it abundantly clear that climate change needs to remain off limits in debates and subsidies need to remain in place at all costs– even if those costs are to the well being of the planet. When I try to answer this question through a pessimistic lens, I see that democracy is in peril as well as the planet.

I hope that as voters realize that our country spent $649,000,000 on fossil fuel they might ask leaders in both parties why this is happening and think of ways this money could have been spent elsewhere without raising any taxes whatsoever.

“Thin Contracts”: The Way Forward for Charter Schools AND Unions

June 5, 2019 Comments off

Forbes contributing writer Talia Milgrom-Elcott offers a way forward for charter schools and unions, a way that would provide charter schools with a stable workforce by offering teachers in those schools the basic benefits unions provide: decent wages, benefits, and working conditions. Here’s Ms. Milgrom-Elcott’s opening paragraphs that describe how this might work:

I am part of a growing contingent: a supporter of unions, public schools and public charter schools. This is no easy alliance. Unionizing charter schools can make both parties anxious – even though charters were first conceived by Al Shanker, the then-president of the American Federation of Teachers.

Many charter schools have delivered powerful results for students by focusing on children first. And unions have staked out the teacher-happiness terrain, focusing on satisfaction, retention and job quality. Why have we forced a choice: unions or charter schools; children-first or teacher-first? Personally, I have come to see these dichotomies as false, because students will only thrive in schools where adults are also thriving.

Companies with disgruntled staff don’t make good widgets. How can we expect unhappy teachers to shape thriving humans? As Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, shared in a recent piece in The Atlantic: “As charters go from infancy to adolescence, those who want to succeed for the long haul have to have a stable, vibrant teaching force, and that stable, vibrant teaching force wants a voice and agency.”

Later in the article, Ms. Milgrom-Elcott answers the question she posed above regarding the mental models in place that result in a forced choice between charters and unions:

We can’t ignore the animosity that has long characterized the relationship between charter schools and unions. Charter schools have made explicit structural decisions to side-step some of the more onerous restrictions of traditional teachers’ union contracts, and unions have derogated charter schools’ intentions, in turn.

Ms. Milgrom-Elcott offers a workaround used by several charter chains who have accepted unionization: a “thin contract”. She uses Green Dot’s collective bargaining agreement as an example:

…Green Dot Public Schools, a network of charter schools where in California they are serving about 11,000 students in communities across Greater Los Angeles – (has) unionized teachers and staff have a central role in the organization.

“We want to be agents of transformation in public education, so we have to live and breathe the same context as our peers,” said Chad Soleo, the national CEO of Green Dot. “Ultimately, we want to make sure that our reforms and the lessons we’ve learned in public education are completely replicable in any union setting.

Partnering with an organized workforce has evolved into much more, says Soleo.

“Our educators buy in wholeheartedly to the values of collective decision-making, collaborative leadership, and organized labor,” he said. “In practice, they wanted a different flavor than the status quo.”

Green Dot’s “thin” contract, negotiated in Los Angeles with their unions, both affiliates of the California Teachers Association – itself a joint affiliate of the AFT and NEA, the nation’s two largest teachers’ unions – leaves room for flexibility by both the school administration and teachers to remain responsive to student needs. Organized charter schools have typically worked with unions to create these more streamlined contracts specific to the needs of each school community.

I can see “thin” contracts being a benefit to unions as well as charter schools. Many “mature” contracts I worked with near the end of my career incorporated detailed regulations on the length and structure of classes that arguably hampered the ability of teachers to innovate and often included arcane provisions on leaves that taxpayer groups would quote to illustrate how easy teachers have it. These regulations and provisions often emerged because of a controversy in one school caused by a single incident that led to language being added to ensure that an outlying practice was not repeated. The result was an increasingly thick and complicated contract. From the union’s perspective changing any of the language was perceived as an erosion of protection or benefits, making it difficult to strip away language that was no longer needed even if current practices made the language superfluous. Language changes regarding the time frames for the issuance of report cards, drafted when they were done by pencil-and-paper instead of computers, were often viewed as “concessions” instead of “clarifications” making relationships between unions and school boards contentious. In order to make contracts skinnier and more flexible, a requirement in this day and age of technology, both sides need to abandon their win-lose mentality and find “a different flavor” than the status quo.

Ms. Milgrom-Olcott’s closing paragraphs an apt closing paragraph for this post as well:

We’re at a critical juncture in this country, one that requires courageous leadership. Persistent economic inequality and lack of social mobility threaten the fabric of our nation and the health of our democracy. Public charter schools want to combat this. To fully live into that mission, their boards, leaders, teachers, and communities should embrace unionization and negotiate the details with unions. Charter school leaders have an opportunity to reignite their schools as engines of economic mobility and robust democratic participation for their communities. The American Dream might well depend on it.

This is What a Safe School Looks Like: Walls, Good Guys With Guns, Surveillance Cameras, and Technology that Identifies Source of Gunfire

June 2, 2019 Comments off

Our local newspaper featured an article by AP writer Stefanie Dazio outlining the steps taken at a Beverly Hill Junior High School. The article gave me chills. Here are a few paragraphs from her piece describing some of the “safety features” at the Horace Mann, which are in bold print:

Beverly Hills is among 200 U.S. school districts using the Share911 app. The board of education added it and other measures, including armed security officers, following the Parkland shooting.

In the fall, the district will add a central command center that will monitor feeds from all the district’s surveillance cameras and use software to monitor keywords in online search traffic for potential threats.

“Safety in schools is evolving. Technology and software, like in all aspects of the modern world, need to be utilized and used,” said Christopher Hertz, district director of school safety. “We want our kids to feel and be safe. … If we do all this, then our teachers can do what they need to do.”

Wealthier areas have not been immune to violence. Horace Mann parents and teachers stressed that they and students feel safe within the walled campus, and not just because it’s in an exclusive area.

We live in a nation that wants to build a wall, use facial recognition software, expand the use of surveillance cameras, and monitor our social media to “protect us” from incoming migrants, criminals who live among us, and potential criminals who are using our new high tech devices to find information on how best to commit crimes. This will require the expenditure of billions of dollars, money that is no longer available for the personal face-to-face interventions that guidance counselors, social workers, and teachers could provide if we had more robust staffing in schools. But despite the loss of these opportunities Dazio reports that most parents and teachers in Beverly Hills appreciate the school district’s efforts:

“I’m grateful I live in this community that has so much security, and I know they are protected,” Evelyn Lahiji, 42, said as she picked up her sons, Lorenzo Naghdechi, 8, and Leonardo Naghdechi, 9.

Christina Richner, 45, said her 6-year-old son, Julian, and 9-year-old daughter, Olivia, have gone through so many emergency drills that “their reflexes will kick in” during a shooting.

The students are trained to gather in a corner with the classroom’s lights out and blinds drawn in a lockdown, social studies teacher Laura Stark said. Staffers check in via the Share911 app to share information, including if any kids are missing or injured.

The real beneficiaries of this, though, are the companies who sell this equipment, companies who lobby as hard as the major corporations and who benefit whenever a school shooting takes place. Ms. Dazio describes these military-technological businesses that prey on the fears of parents as

a billion-dollar industry where companies manufacture products from “ballistic attack-resistant” doors to smoke cannons. The hardening market, as well as lobbying efforts to get taxpayer dollars to fund upgrades, had stalled in recent years but rekindled after the Parkland shooting.

No matter that these businesses are siphoning those billions from revenue starved schools who often cut teachers to provide these kinds of “hardening” products, no matter that other businesses are springing up to provide staff development to teachers so they can train students to “…gather in a corner with the classroom’s lights out and blinds drawn in a lockdown“, we should capitalize on fear to promote spending. That seems to have worked at the national level… and seems to be working locally as well.

We’re Not in Palo Alto Any More

April 21, 2019 Comments off

An article by Nellie Bowles in today’s NYTimes describes the reaction of parents in Kansas when their school district decided to adopt Mark Zuckerberg’s Summit Learning program that relies more on Chromebooks than teachers…. and the reaction was NOT good!

“We’re allowing the computers to teach and the kids all looked like zombies,” said Tyson Koenig, a factory supervisor in McPherson, who visited his son’s fourth-grade class. In October, he pulled the 10-year-old out of the school.

In a school district survey of McPherson middle school parents released this month, 77 percent of respondents said they preferred their child not be in a classroom that uses Summit. More than 80 percent said their children had expressed concerns about the platform.

Oops! Well… maybe the problem was limited to a small rural district in Kansas!

The resistance in Kansas is part of mounting nationwide opposition to Summit, which began trials of its system in public schools four years ago and is now in around 380 schools and used by 74,000 students. In Brooklyn, high school students walked out in November after their school started using Summit’s platform. In Indiana, Pa., after a survey by Indiana University of Pennsylvania found 70 percent of students wanted Summit dropped or made optional, the school board scaled it back and then voted this month to terminate it. And in Cheshire, Conn., the program was cut after protests in 2017.

“When there are frustrating situations, generally kids get over them, parents get over them, and they all move on,” said Mary Burnham, who has two grandchildren in Cheshire’s school district and started a petition to end Summit’s use. “Nobody got over this.”

Oops again and again!
But here’s an imponderable. How would parents have reacted to the imposition of the factory school model when it was “invented” in the early 1920s? Would they have preferred the one-room school house model to the egg crate school? Would they have preferred a different form of grouping than the age-based cohorts imposed by efficiency minded administrators? And a final question: are the Silicon Valley CEOs imposing their way of thinking on future generations the same way that business-minded efficiency experts imposed their way of thinking on generations that followed?

Standardized Tests, “Failing Schools” and the Emerging Un-Enlightenment

April 11, 2019 Comments off

I read “Trump’s Most Worrisome Legacy” by economist Joseph Stiglitz’s in yesterday’s Common Dreams and got the chills he hoped to elicit as a result. The legacy that created a knot in Stiglitz’s (and my) stomach is this: President Donald Trump is not interested in seeking the truth.

One section in Mr. Stiglitz’s essay, an overview of impact of the Scottish Enlightenment, was especially thought provoking:

Adam Smith tried to (explain the basis for America’s wealth) in his classic 1776 book The Wealth of Nations. For centuries, Smith noted, standards of living had been stagnant; then, toward the end of the eighteenth century, incomes start to soar. Why?

Smith himself was a leading light of the great intellectual movement known as the Scottish Enlightenment. The questioning of established authority that followed the earlier Reformation in Europe forced society to ask: How do we know the truth? How can we learn about the world around us? And how can and should we organize our society?

From the search for answers to these questions arose a new epistemology, based on the empiricism and skepticism of science, which came to prevail over the forces of religion, tradition, and superstition.Over time, universities and other research institutions were established to help us judge truth and discover the nature of our world. Much of what we take for granted today – from electricity, transistors, and computers to lasers, modern medicine, and smartphones – is the result of this new disposition, undergirded by basic scientific research (most of it financed by government).

The absence of royal or ecclesiastical authority to dictate how society should be organized to ensure that things worked out well, or as well as they could, meant that society had to figure it out for itself. But devising the institutions that would ensure society’s wellbeing was a more complicated matter than discovering the truths of nature.In general, one couldn’t conduct controlled experiments.

Mr. Stiglitz then describes how our country devised institutions that ensured things would work out as well as they could… and described how Mr. Trump has undermined those same institutions by emphasizing the accumulation of wealth over the search for truth. He writes:

But what concerns me most is Trump’s disruption of the institutions that are necessary for the functioning of society. Trump’s “MAGA” (Make America Great Again) agenda is, of course, not about restoring the moral leadership of the United States. It embodies and celebrates unbridled selfishness and self-absorption. MAGA is about economics.

But I have news for Mr. Stiglitz: MAGA’s embrace of “unbridled selfishness and self-absorption” and roots in “economics” reflects of our culture’s perspective on schooling. The purpose of getting an education in America is not to find the answer to questions like “How do we know the truth? How can we learn about the world around us? And how can and should we organize our society?” The purpose of getting an education in America is about scoring well on standardized tests that value convergent thinking; about promoting oneself over others in order to gain entry into a prestigious college; and, ultimately, about earning a lot of money. These are the values we are inculcating in students and have inculcated in them for at least two decades of test-based “reform” that is the basis for NCLB, RTTT, and now ESSA. And while Mr. Trump’s MAGA movement “celebrates unbridled selfishness and self-absorption” and places the accumulation of wealth on a higher pedestal, I believe the MAGA movement has its roots in the message we’ve given to students for decades that the primary purpose of schooling is to earn a lot of money.

It is revealing that several reports indicate that the tech billionaires do not enroll their children in elite private schools or affluent public schools: they enroll them in Waldorf Schools whose goal is “…to inspire life-long learning in all students and to enable them to fully develop their unique capacities.” Standardized tests are not given in Waldorf Schools… and their “success” is not measured by their enrollment in a prestigious college or their lifelong earnings. They are more interested in the questions posed by Adam Smith: “How do we know the truth? How can we learn about the world around us? And how can and should we organize our society?