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The Florida Legislature’s Solution to School Shootings: Collect Data on Children Instead of Limiting Access to Military Grade Weapons

October 12, 2019 Comments off

The title of a CNBC report by Kate Fazzini is chilling:

Florida is scooping up huge amounts of data on schoolchildren, including security camera footage and discipline records, and researchers are worried

The reason for collecting this data is not revealed in the headline but IS revealed in the second bullet point at the beginning of the article:

  • Florida schools are now required to collect, store and crunch data on students in the name of predicting a school shooting.

This bullet point was elaborated on later:

Florida schools are now required to collect, store and crunch data on students in the name of predicting school shootings. The Florida Schools Safety Portal, or FSSP, executive order was issued by Gov. Ron DeSantis earlier this year in response to the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Along with this caveat,drawn from research done by the Aspen Institute:

No evidence-based research has demonstrated that a data-driven surveillance system such as the FSSP will be effective in preventing school violence. In addition, no information is publicly available about how the database was designed, developed, or tested,” according to preliminary findings by researchers.

Researchers from the Aspen Institute DID offer some details, though:

The law requires Florida school districts to store huge amounts of data in one database, including thousands of hours of video footage, grade cards, student disciplinary records and teacher memos. It also includes information on children collected through “social media monitoring, local law enforcement agencies, the Florida Department of Children and Families, Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Baker Act admissions, and the School Environmental Safety Incident Reporting System, which aggregates data on crime, violence, and disruptive behaviors.

There’s a massive amount of data going into this database, but they still haven’t been transparent about what algorithm they are using. Using administrative data to predict future behavior, it’s not evidence-based.

Aspen expressed concerns that the data gathered would “disproportionately affect students with disabilities and African American males, two groups that have traditionally received disproportionately higher disciplinary actions than other students” while noting that “…there’s no evidence that students who have discipline problems in school go on to become school shooters.”

What neither CNBC nor the Aspen Institute did say was that the Governor and the Legislature had a choice: they could go after military grade weapons owned by a handful of gun owners or they could compromise the privacy of tens of thousands of school children. The choice from where I sit would be easy… but then the NRA isn’t underwriting my blog.

Silicon Valley’s Therapy Apps a Review of Counseling’s Future?

October 6, 2019 Comments off

Those of us of a certain age (and those who are Stanley Kubrick aficionados) recall the character HAL 9000 in the movie 2001 A Space Odyssey. HAL 9000 was the sentient computer who provided support for the crew members on the space mission until it learned that the human passengers intended to disable him. It was chilling when Dave asked HAL to “Open the pod bay doors” only to hear the reply: “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that”. The 1968 vintage movie envisioned a future when a computer might control the destiny of a human, a notion that seemed far fetched in an era when powerful computers took up a city block and we had not landed on the moon.

Fast forward to today where nearly everyone in the world is transfixed by the information streaming from their cell phones and billionaires are contemplating offering private trips to the moon within a few years. Fast forward to today where, according to a recent NYTimes article by Nellie Bowles, Silicon Valley tech entrepreneurs are developing apps that provide therapy. Fast forward to today where cash-strapped schools are seeking counseling help while spending millions on technology and it is not hard to envision a marriage of convenience between the tech entrepreneurs and public education, one where students will be able to get advice from an app whose algorithm is designed to provide the kind of support that world class therapists offer.. and get that help at an affordable rate!

How would this work you ask. Ms. Bowles uses Kip, a new therapy app, as an example. Kip uses information gleaned from “world class providers” to develop “smart software tools” designed to offer “a seamless experience for both clients and providers.”  The Times article offers this description of the program:

Traditional therapists scribble notes and review them later, possibly with a mug of chamomile. In the Kip system, notes quickly turn into data. Weeks of therapy are broken down with quizzes to determine exactly how happiness and anxiety levels are progressing, and how quickly.

Kip offers an app that encourages clients to record their moods in real time, prompted by questions that a therapist can choose to have pop up throughout the day. “That way they’re not subject to recency bias,” said Ti Zhao, the company’s founder.

Kip effectively uses the same kind of algorithms as dating services to pair a client with a therapist and provides the therapist with a trove of data that enables them to quickly determine the best course of treatment for their client.

While Ms. Bowles believes that “the new data could provide insights that typical therapists would not come up with on their own”, she also offers several cautionary notes, not the least of which is the possibility that the data gathered by Kip might be sold to others.

The overall tone of the article is somewhat sardonic, with Ms. Bowles calling out the technology industry for its belief that any problem can be solved by gathering enough data and developing a good algorithm. But it overlooks the possibility that there is a large market to be tapped: public schools who have an increasing demand for mental health services and a limited budget. It is not hard to envision an app students could use to match themselves with school counselors or psychologists… and app that would cull out garden variety teen angst from mental distress that requires professional intervention. And as that culling occurs, many stressed students could avoid seeing a counselor altogether, settling instead for something like the Clam Down app described by Ms. Bowles where:

“…a soft male voice told me that my mind can slow down. It can convert concerns to decisions. The process can even become second nature. And if it does, I can be a person of action. A person of action.”

Eventually, many counselors who work with college bound students could be replaced by an algorithm that would provide students with feedback on their proposed choices. It’s not too difficult to foresee an app that would gently tell a student who aspires to get assistant applying to an ivy league college to hear a disembodied voice say: “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that”.

Fanfare Over Business Roundtable’s Commitment to Responsible Leadership Undercut by Investors

September 29, 2019 Comments off

This morning’s NYTimes features an article by business writer David Gelles titled “The Week CEOs Got Smacked“, a recounting of the decision of boards of directors to fire some of the leaders from the Business Roundtable who advocated corporate responsibility. I read this article on the heels of watching the Netflix Documentary “American Factory“, a clear-eyed look at the trade-offs necessary if our country hopes to re-enter the manufacturing marketplace given the current political and corporate governance structure. That governance structure is controlled by a small group of plutocrats who explicitly set government policy in China and Russia and have an increasingly large voice in setting government policy in our country. I have long believed that both economic systems are regressing toward a mean where a small group of shareholders of borderless corporations and autocratic governments control the remainder of the global workforce. This perspective makes me want to strengthen democracy in hopes that our elected officials will create a government that will develop regulations that assure corporate responsibility.

China’s de facto form of economic control is best described by the term “command capitalism”, which is defined in a 1998 book by J. L. Porket here,  The current US economy is best described as “state capitalism”, which is defined by Wikipedia here. Neither of these systems has a place for corporate responsibility and neither has a place for democracy.

Porket’s description of “command capitalism, as noted above, was written in 1998— before the advent of Big Data and before China emerged as the economic powerhouse that it is today. One section of Porket’s analysis of the inherent flaws of command capitalism should be re-examined. He suggests that the government cannot exert full control over the economy because “...at least some information received by it is insufficient, incomplete, unreliable, inaccurate and distorted.” With todays trove of data and the ability to synthesize that data to identify consumer tastes and trends, the government may be able to exert near full control over the economy. Moreover, as the American Factory movie illustrated, the lack of opportunities for unskilled labor in the US is compelling our country to accept the wages, hours, and working conditions that exist in China in the name of “efficiency” and profit.

At the same time, our country is increasingly beholden to a faceless group of “shareholders” whose insatiable demand for profits drives corporate and government policy. This section of the Wikipedia definition of “state capitalism” describes my perception of where the US economy stands:

Noam Chomsky, a supporter of libertarian socialism, applies the term ‘state capitalism’ to economies such as that of the United States, where large enterprises that are deemed “too big to fail” receive publicly funded government bailouts that mitigate the firms’ assumption of risk and undermine market laws and where private production is largely funded by the state at public expense but private owners reap the profits.[11][12][13] This practice is in contrast with the ideals of both socialism and laissez-faire capitalism.[14]

Chomsky’s description of the economy is captured in the aphorism that in our economic system today “corporate leaders pocket profits while taxpayers cover the costs of risk”. In the movie, Fuyao Glass received $10,000,000 from the taxpayers in Dayton Ohio to bring 800 jobs to the area, which sounds like a large number until that is compared to the 2000 jobs that GM provided… and sounds even worse when views learn that the new jobs pay $14/hour, roughly half of what GM workers received.

American Factory describes the course we are on… one where the need to reward shareholders exceeds the need to retain a civil democracy where the pursuit of happiness is differentiated from the pursuit of money or, as is increasingly the case, the pursuit of survival.

How can we change direction?

On the governance level, we need corporate leaders to stay the course of the direction of the Business Roundtable and, ideally, advocate that all corporations adopt the B-Corp principles that place employee well being in the forefront of their mission.

On the political level, we have to place a higher value on the “pursuit of happiness” and a lower value on the pursuit of material well being. In the framework described by Arthur Brooks at a recent lecture at Dartmouth College, we need to emphasize endogenous goals and deemphasize exogenous goals.

But the ultimate transformation that is necessary to change our thinking is one of spirit. We need to spend more time and energy helping each other and less time trying to “beat out” the competition.

And last, we might want to examine our compulsion to be as efficient as possible. Throughout the movie there was a relentless focus on efficiency— a focus that was in place in the factory where I worked in Work Standards in Dearborn Michigan in 1966. In the concluding scene of the movie, a Chinese engineer was proudly demonstrating how he would improve efficiency in the Fubayo glass factory: he had designed robots to replace the humans. The ultimate standard for efficiency IS a robot: it will do a job with repeated and uncomplaining precision for hours on end without any interference from life outside the factory. Humans cannot compete with robots if efficiency is the standard.

 

 

 

 

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.