Smorgasbord: NY State Test Results, Incoherency, and Teacher Shortages

NY State test results have been released: trends are positive

This year’s tests can actually be compared directly to last year’s, so inferences are slightly more valid. Statewide, ELA proficiency went up 1.9 points and math 1.1.

It will be interesting to see what narratives spring out of this. Even more interesting will be how anti-charter constituents spin the positive results from charters.

Look for all sides spinning these results in the way that suits them best.

State Education Department Releases Spring 2017 Grades 3-8 ELA and Math Assessment Results, NYSED

Speaking of measurement: How can we measure SEL?

Some interesting suggestions here from a recent design challenge:

  1. How quickly kids answer questions on an on-line test (too quickly means less self-control/engagement)
  2. Asking kids questions about a video to assess their perspective-taking abilities

Building a Modern Marshmallow Test: New Ways to Measure Social-Emotional Learning, EdWeek

It should go without saying that laptops alone do not a quality education make

You know, like, how are you actually using the laptops?

Do Laptops Help Learning? A Look At The Only Statewide School Laptop Program, NPR Ed

How we teach history depends on where we teach it

I’ve argued before that one of the biggest problems with what we teach students across our nation is that it’s completely incoherent, and we do little to nurture a collective sense of values, knowledge, and civic engagement.

Here’s that problem in action:

Virginia’s standards of learning for U.S. history to 1865 include “describing the cultural, economic and constitutional issues that divided the nation” and “explaining how the issues of states’ rights and slavery increased sectional tensions.” Alabama fifth-graders “identify causes of the Civil War from the Northern and Southern viewpoints.”

Contrast that with Delaware, where school districts set their own curriculum but a syllabus for the eighth grade suggesting what might be covered during instruction says that abolition meant that the American people could for the first time “seriously claim to be living up to their commitment to the principle of liberty rooted in the American state papers.”

In Michigan, curriculum also is decided locally, though the state’s social studies standards for the Civil War and Reconstruction in eighth grade include the instructions: “Explain the reasons (political, economic, and social) why Southern states seceded and explain the differences in the timing of secession in the Upper and Lower South.”

Civil War lessons often depend on where the classroom is, Associated Press

Teacher shortages in high needs areas, such as SPED and math, with no end in sight

One of the suggestions here for addressing this makes a lot of sense to me:

“Make teacher certification national instead of state by state. Prospective teachers must pass an exam specific to the state they want to work in. But if a teacher wants to move from, say, Pennsylvania to California, they can’t immediately apply for jobs there. By having a national certification exam, teachers would have more mobility to go where they’re needed.”

Schools throughout the country are grappling with teacher shortage, data show, CNN

One way of addressing teacher shortages in SPED: draw from the paraprofessionals

They’re already in the field. Make it easier for them to transition into teaching.

Makes sense to me. But one thing to be aware of: paras have great experience in managing behaviors and working with kids, but may not have a strong background on content.

Which is why having a strong curriculum and departmental teams that can support adaptation and implementation of that curriculum are so critical.

With principals in ‘crisis mode,’ new Washington state law taps into thousands of potential teacher recruits, Seattle Times

Mini-Smorgasbord Monday: School Choice, Nuance, and Opioids

File:Stick figure - choice.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
By Obsidian Soul (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Choice is no guarantee of quality

“…a remark by a DeVos spokesperson last week — ‘the ultimate accountability for schools is whether or not parents choose to send their children there’ — should be seen as an attack on the idea that school quality matters. It’s fake accountability.”

This is an important point to bear in mind. There are some choice advocates who argue that rich parents already have choice and no one critiques or limits their choices, so why shouldn’t poor parents be able to make their own choices, misinformed or no?

While there’s rhetorical attraction to that proposition, it’s also a circular argument, since the primary reason choice advocates call for choice in the first place is because parents with only poor performing schools located near them should have access and options for higher quality schools.

Other than the hard-line free-marketeers, few choice advocates would argue for unfettered choice without adequate oversight. How about we have more arguments about the oversight itself, rather than choice as some mystical holy grail?

Cantor: When a Bounty of Options Aren’t Enough, How Poor Parents Really Practice School Choice, The 74

Should vouchers be equated with segregation? It’s complicated.

Matt Barnum brings in the nuance. Like many things in ed world, we need to avoid painting vouchers with a broad partisan brush (saying this as much to myself as to you).

And a lot of how vouchers or education savings accounts are perceived has to do with how they are framed.

“Advocates for school choice often point to the support of black and Hispanic voters. An Education Next poll found that nearly 64 percent of African-Americans and 62 percent of Hispanics — compared to 50 percent of white respondents — would back a tax credit program to fund private school tuition.

But support for private school choice programs tends to drop substantially when the word “voucher” is introduced or the use of public dollars is emphasized.”

Critics of vouchers say they’re marred by racism and exacerbate segregation. Are they right?, Chalkbeat

Scholarly nuance on charters vs. districts

“Despite some important differences, the teaching climates of charter and public schools do not match the enthusiastic expectations of proponents or the worst fears of critics.”

Please keep this guy away from rousing charter school debate, Huff Post

Speaking of scholarly nuance on charters vs. districts, check out these two longreads to broaden your nuanced perspective on charters and districts:

The Secret History of School Choice: How Progressives Got There First, James Forman in Yale Law School Legal Scholarship Repository (H/T Matt Barnum)

The Structure of Educational Revolutions, Andy Smarick in National Affairs

Charters should be able to hire uncertified teachers

Given that most ed programs haven’t exactly demonstrated a concern about outcomes and actually preparing their teachers for real classrooms, seems to me that it would make sense to allow charter schools in NY to hire uncertified teachers and train them as they see fit. Hold them accountable for the results.

And let’s be honest–the most successful charters have tightly managed structures that pair assessment, curriculum, and professional learning that could probably better prepare teachers — or send them on their way if they don’t perform.

How Teachers Are Taught, Monica Disare in The Atlantic

The difference a father can make

“My parents didn’t think I was less than my brothers because I’m a girl. My father Ziauddin says, ‘Don’t ask me what I did. Ask me what I did not do. I did not clip her wings.’ ”

Our Q&A with Malala Yousafzai, Nobel Peace Prize winner and education advocate, The Lily

Teen herd behavior channels the opioid epidemic into schools

“The 16-year-old, a student at a specialized and highly competitive public high school, says drug use runs rampant at her school.

‘I was drinking and smoking (pot) because it was accepted,’ said the teen-age girl, who asked to remain anonymous to prevent bullying at her school.”

During finals and midterm exams, she said, students pop prescription stimulants such as Adderall, Vyvanse and Ritalin to aid their studies.

‘It’s crazy,’ she said. ‘Even the kids who never use drugs want to enhance their brains, so they’re taking these drugs.’

The girl’s mother thinks the school didn’t do enough to help her daughter.

‘I still don’t understand why the school had no control over what kids are doing besides academics,’ she said tearfully.’

‘Teenagers are very hormonal and go through a lot of changes,’ [the student} explained. ‘Those emotions have nowhere to go. It’s the only way that they can get a grip on themselves and their feelings.’ ”

New York City’s opioid crisis seeps into public schools as drug counselors see uptick in student addicts, NY Daily News

Fractals, Self-Organizing Principles, and Self-Segregation

Fractals are all around us

Came across this study on planting patterns, “Fractal planting patterns yield optimal harvests, without central control” that bears some closer review.

What’s fascinating about this is that it seems to present a real-world solution to a problem commonly referred to as the “tragedy of the commons,” in which the self-interest of individuals leads to the destruction and overuse of shared natural resources.

Spatial patterning often occurs in ecosystems as a self-organizing process caused by feedback between organisms and the physical environment. “The centuries-old Balinese rice terraces are also created by feedback between farmer’s decisions and the ecology, which triggers a transition from local to global scale control,” explains Lansing. “Our model shows for the first time that adaptation in a coupled human-natural system can trigger self-organized criticality.”

This is absolutely fascinating, and it’s interesting to consider this in relation to other ideas on a “self-organizing criticality” that we’ve explored here before, such as in brains and sand piles.

For proponents of ed reform who argue against centralized control, this seems like it could be worth digging into further.

The aspect of fractals here is also tantalizing. After chatting with a colleague about the article, he referred me to Ron Eglash, a mathematician who has studied fractals in African history and culture. Do yourself a favor and watch his TED talk, it will blow your mind.

Eglash raising an interesting point about self-organizing principles: they can be wonderful, as in Google search, or our brains. But there is also a dark side, such as in the spread of HIV or the damaging effects of capitalism. He suggests that the fractal algorithms employed in Africa could present us with “robust” “ways of doing self-organization — of doing entrepreneurship — that are gentle, that are egalitarian.”

I’d love to explore more about how the fractal design of school structures and systems could be utilized for a productive purpose. Please share if you’ve got more on this.

Another interesting angle on the Balinese rice farmers is suggested in an earlier study reported also on Phys.org, “Phase transitions of rice farmers may offer insight into managing natural resources.

Their study and modeling seems to suggest that smaller self-segregated communities within a society are desirable in the long-run.

They found that the downside of the segregation is that it increases the social disharmony throughout the society as a whole. The upside, however, is that the social disharmony within each community becomes very low. In some communities, individuals are more likely to keep cooperating with each other—using the shared resource fairly—compared to the situation without segregation. These results were very similar to what the researchers observed in the segregated society of the Balinese subak.

This seems to be a dark side unmentioned in the more recent study on how the Balinese farmers exemplify a self-organizing society in harmony with nature. Or perhaps this isn’t a dark side — it’s a suggestion that some self-segregation can be positive.

But I don’t know anything about the Balinese subak, either, so not sure how much to read into this. Certainly worth going deeper into this. If any readers have knowledge of African fractal algorithms or Balinese subaks, please share!

A complex system is defined by system-level goals, not only by the movement of its parts

Hoel and his collaborators claim to show that new causes—things that produce effects—can emerge at macroscopic scales. They say coarse-grained macroscopic states of a physical system (such as the psychological state of a brain) can have more causal power over the system’s future than a more detailed, fine-grained description of the system possibly could. Macroscopic states, such as desires or beliefs, “are not just shorthand for the real causes,” explained Simon DeDeo, an information theorist and cognitive scientist at Carnegie Mellon University and the Santa Fe Institute who is not involved in the work, “but it’s actually a description of the real causes, and a more fine-grained description would actually miss those causes.”

https://www.wired.com/story/new-math-untangles-the-mysterious-nature-of-causality-consciousness/

Living in tune with nature isn’t about being happy

Let me be clear: I’m totally on board with the “get out into nature more” bandwagon, and I’m thrilled to see increasing research showing how much being out in nature contributes to well-being and health.

But in this interview on Wired with the writer of The Nature Fix, Florence Williams, something stood out to me as problematic in how we often approach this natural buzz:

“We don’t recognize how happy nature makes us.”

I think we need some clarity around terms. If by “nature” we simply mean “green living things,” then sure, it makes us feel good. But if we mean “nature” as in the wilderness and the brutal forces therein, then happiness may be a quixotic cause.

Living in tune with nature means having humility and respect, which comes from an appreciation for the often volatile and seemingly senseless danger and risks that are inherent in living in nature. In other words, it’s not just about something we can “get” from nature, in a transactional way, but also about recognizing and assuming our proper place within the cosmos.

That’s a point, alas, I don’t expect many people will buy into, so I understand why we focus on the transactional benefits of nature.

So while we’re on the subject, let’s talk about our children. We want them to be healthy and happy, right?

As Williams points out so well in the interview, our kids are the ones suffering the most from our lack of attunement to nature (however one defines it):

“I think our institutions need to take [incorporating nature into urban infrastructure] on, especially schools. Where I live, only 10 percent of kids get the recommended recess time. Which is appalling, because we know that kids need this time to run around and have exploratory free play in order to just pay attention later in the day.

. . . If you have kids, the most important thing you can do is get your kids outside enough to develop their love for nature. You will be giving them a gift they will have their entire lives.”

And while we’re at it, let’s help them gain a requisite humility and respect for the forces beyond our ken.

https://www.wired.com/2017/03/spend-5-percent-day-outside/

Conceptual vs. Procedural Math at Mastery charters

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“Maths” by Chris de Kok is licensed under CC BY 2.0

There was an interesting recent the74 piece on a Philadelphia charter organization, Mastery, which takes low performing schools and works to “turn them around.”

 

Embedded within this article is the implication that a shift to a focus on the teaching of conceptual math, rather than “rote” procedural teaching, led to a swift downturn in math scores.

“So this year, the network began reintroducing teaching techniques that had been a staple at Mastery schools for years, while seeking a middle ground between no excuses and restorative practices. It’s a ‘journey of trying to find out what’s the right mix,’ Gordon said.

Specifically, the network is reintroducing procedural math instruction, which focuses on rote instruction like memorization and repetition.”

It seems worth digging into this supposition a bit more.

Is Mastery’s downturn in math scores due to the failure of conceptual math in general as a pedagogical approach? Or is it a failure of the network to attract and train teachers who can teach this type of math more effectively?

Or is it a failure in the assessments that were used as a reference? Or was it that conceptual math takes longer to “stick” and pay dividends? Or was it a failure of the curriculum they used to move in a more conceptual direction? . . .

http://the74million.org/article/at-philadelphias-mastery-charter-network-culture-is-key-to-turning-around-failing-schools

Smörgåsbord: Our prehistoric minds face the technological wilderness

“A Brook in the Forest” by Gustave Courbet. Courtesy of The MET.

Innovation is truly generated from infrastructure, standards, and contexts that are incrementally shaped by bureaucracies. Sorry, Steve Jobs idolizers.

https://aeon.co/essays/most-of-the-time-innovators-don-t-move-fast-and-break-things

What are the consequences of children interacting daily with AI voice assistants like Alexa or Google Home?

“There can be a lot of unintended consequences to interactions with these devices that mimic conversation,” said Kate Darling, an MIT professor who studies how humans interact with robots. “We don’t know what all of them are yet.”

I think the fears about transference of how kids talk to robots to humans is overblown here — after all, we all talk to our pets as kids but that doesn’t seem to taint our interactions with other humans. But definitely worth considering how these devices could potentially provide linguistic training and refinement of questioning as an educative tool.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/how-millions-of-kids-are-being-shaped-by-know-it-all-voice-assistants/2017/03/01/c0a644c4-ef1c-11e6-b4ff-ac2cf509efe5_story.html

Direct instruction in a “circle time” game could help promote self-control in children.

Researchers noted that “there could be educational implications to their results: ‘the irony may be that in devising strategies for parenting and schooling geared to a world of rapid technological change while neglecting the importance of traditional cultural practices, we may be contributing to a deterioration of young people’s attentive and inhibitive resources, thus promoting impulses toward instant gratification’.”

https://digest.bps.org.uk/2017/03/03/circle-time-rituals-help-children-beat-the-marshmallow-test-of-self-control/

According to an evolutionary psychologist, high school poses “an unprecedented social challenge to our prehistoric minds.”

Could just as easily switch the word parent to teacher here: “the things that the parent thinks that the child should be concerned with (preparing for a career and developing important life skills) and the things that the child is emotionally driven to actually be concerned with (being popular and having fun) are often at odds.”

https://qz.com/705770/an-evolutionary-psychologist-explains-why-you-will-always-be-haunted-by-high-school/

“indigenous people were gardeners and stewards of biodiversity.” Compare to us.

https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/03/its-now-clear-that-ancient-humans-helped-enrich-the-amazon/518439/

A little wildness and diversity can go a long way.

“In an Urban Forestry & Urban Greening study of vacant lots in Cleveland, Ohio, where economic impoverishment and a declining population have left some 27,000 lots to go feral, the ecosystem services provided by inner-city lots far surpassed those of carefully-tended residential and suburban spaces.”

http://www.anthropocenemagazine.org/2017/03/the-value-of-vacant-lots/

Brains as ecosystems.

“Critically, these cases began with studying behaviors that the animals naturally do, not those that they had been trained to perform.”

https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/02/how-brain-scientists-forgot-that-brains-have-owners/517599/

This is a great idea: quiz commenters on articles to ensure they have basic comprehension before they can comment.

“If everyone can agree that this is what the article says, then they have a much better basis for commenting on it.”

Not only could this ensure more level-headed commenting — but it could furthermore serve as a reinforcer of key details.

http://www.niemanlab.org/2017/03/this-site-is-taking-the-edge-off-rant-mode-by-making-readers-pass-a-quiz-before-commenting/

Respect to Mike Rowe for keeping up the call for CTE.

“If you want to make America great again, you’ve got to make work cool again,” he said.

https://www.the74million.org/article/dirty-jobs-star-mike-rowe-stumps-for-career-and-tech-ed-as-house-readies-for-new-cte-bill

Busing is always the conversation killer on the integration of schools. But Hartford demonstrates that busing can be beneficial.

http://www.csmonitor.com/EqualEd/2017/0225/Where-busing-works

An important reminder from Nikole Hannah-Jones what the word “public” means in the US — including both its dark side and it’s promise.

“as black Americans became part of the public, white Americans began to pull away.”

“schools, as segregated as many are, remain one of the few institutions where Americans of different classes and races mix. The vast multiracial, socioeconomically diverse defense of public schools that DeVos set off may show that we have not yet given up on the ideals of the public — and on ourselves.”

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/21/magazine/have-we-lost-sight-of-the-promise-of-public-schools.html

NY Teachers: Here’s a useful graph to share with students, courtesy of Achieve’s new report.

media-20170228

http://www.achieve.org/files/New%20York_2017.pdf

Success Academy’s Moskowitz gets called out by Politico

Suddenly, Moskowitz, one of the most vociferously and politically aggressive of education reformers, claims that “I … need to consider whether it is appropriate for me to use my position as the leader of a collection of public schools paid for with government funds to advocate politically.”

Hmm.

http://www.politico.com/states/new-york/city-hall/story/2017/02/success-staff-question-moskowitzs-ties-to-trump-109792

Though after some criticism from her own staff and from the exposure by that Politico article, it seems she suddenly re-discovered her voice.

http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/success-academy-schools-support-transgender-students-article-1.2984127

Airplane wings that morph, inspired by birds

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/next/space/morphing-wings/

 

Special Education: Inclusion or Specialized Intervention

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“Street Crowd” by Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen (French (born Switzerland), Lausanne 1859–1923 Paris) via The Metropolitan Museum of Art is licensed under CC0 1.0

A fair amount of academic literature calls for clinical, evidence-based models of intensive intervention for students with disabilities in K-12. Yet in the field, there is limited effective implementations of such interventions.

Models such as Response to Intervention (RTI), multi-tiered support systems (MTSS), and standard, evidence-based protocols and programs all make complete sense when you learn about them. But there’s also a problem with these interventions: they are based on clinical frames of implementation, as in a trained clinician in the given model or protocol delivers the intervention in a prescribed manner.

The daily reality of a K-12 school, however, is far from clinical. Opportunities to deliver prescribed interventions, whether in a small group or in the ideal of a 1:1 setting, are few and far between. Moreover, opportunities to be trained in such interventions are few and far between. One is certainly not trained in any given intervention in any traditional education program.

The very model of a self-contained classroom, a class in which students with more severe disabilities are separated from their peers, relies upon this clinical ideal. And again, in isolation, as an ideal, it makes perfect sense. Let’s separate out the kids with greatest of needs so we can provide them with individualized, supportive instruction.

Similarly, within an inclusive classroom, district leaders continually speak about and prescribe the need to move away from a one-teach, one assist model to a parallel, station, or team teaching model. Or they speak of the need to “differentiate” and “individualize” instruction.

Idealized models that make perfect sense and sound great, but that rarely play out that way on the ground.

A Division Between Inclusion and Specialized Intervention

There is some scholarly debate about this. Fuchs et al, in a 2010 paper, “The ‘Blurring’ of Special Education in a New Continuum of General Education Placements and Services,” provides a useful delineation into two camps they term IDEA and NCLB. The IDEA group advocates for a top-down (i.e., replicable), linear, and time-sensitive process with fewer tiers of instruction, which serves both prevention and a more valid method of disability identification. They believe in evidence-based programs at Tier 1, the strength of standard protocols in Tier 2 and Experimental Teaching for Tier 3 intervention. They believe in the importance of a distinct special education program.

On the other hand, the NCLB group focuses on a problem-solving approach based on standards. “Whereas special education remained a distinct entity in reform making in the 1980s and 1990s, many in the NCLB camp today are advocating for obscuring, smearing, dimming, and confusing special education by blurring it into general education. In their plans—however implicit—special education vanishes in all but name (and maybe in name as well).”

Research suggests that the standard-protocol approach is superior to problem solving in accelerating the progress of children with serious learning problems. However, the authors acknowledge that “because there are insufficient numbers of such protocols in many academic areas and in the higher grades, and because ‘the school bus arrives every morning,’ many practitioners may have little choice but to rely on some variant of problem solving.”

In a more recent paper in 2015, “Inclusion Versus Specialized Intervention for Very-Low-Performing Students: What Does Access Mean in an Era of Academic Challenge?“, Fuchs and other authors again examine the split between those who push for a problem-solving, inclusionary approach vs. that of “specialized intervention” approach and advocate for a focus on explicit, specialized intervention delivered in a separate setting.

Here’s a couple of provocative quotes from this paper that struck me:

“. . . access cannot be assumed even when inclusive instruction reflects state of-the-art accommodations and support. Instead, only evidence of adequate student outcomes demonstrates that access to the curriculum has been accomplished. In fact, the present analysis indicates that such access is sometimes more satisfactorily achieved under a service delivery arrangement that occurs outside the physical space of the inclusive program and using instructional methods that differ from the inclusive program. All this argues for a definition of access to the general educational curriculum that is based on empirical evidence of adequate learning— regardless of the setting in which or the instructional methods by which that learning is achieved.”

“…it is not possible to ignore students’ foundational skill deficits if progress toward CCSS is to be realized. For example, to demonstrate meaningful improvement with informational text, specialized intervention must address very low performers’ decoding, word recognition, and vocabulary deficits, and this often requires out-of-level foundational skills instruction. Therefore, although reconceptualizing access as empirical demonstration of learning, schools must also recognize that the access mandate often requires schools to provide out-of-level instruction to meet students’ needs for accessing the grade-level curriculum.”

Yet I don’t agree with the authors that putting in place explicit instructional intervention programs will solve all the problems they’ve identified with inclusionary practices. You can place my own professional stance as firmly within the “NCLB” camp outlined above. Schools are not clinics, and unfortunately, special education teachers and other personnel in school buildings are rarely, if ever, trained in the delivery of specific interventions.

In fact, I think the issue of either strong inclusionary instruction or specialized intervention comes down to the same fundamental issue: there is a general lack of instructional capacity and expertise in most schools, in addition to a general lack of curricular coherence and vision.

Either way, we certainly need to rethink how we are putting in place supports for students who struggle the most and assessing whether those supports are actually effective.

My argument, however, is to place our primary and immediate focus on establishing coherent and rigorous curriculum and expectations for all students. I thus argue for inclusion and a problem-solving approach.

A recent article in Education Next,”Reforming Remediation” neatly encapsulates the rationale for this inclusionary argument. Students placed directly in college-level statistics did far better than their counterparts in remedial classes.

While that example is focused on a higher education setting, we can find parallels in K-12 by looking at access to Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) programs, or to difficult academic subjects such as Latin. Disadvantaged students rarely have the opportunity to experience such rigorous curriculum. Yet when they do, as Bronx Latin teacher Peter Dodington put it, “The combination of a difficult topic and a well-ordered, step-by-step curriculum allows even otherwise weak students to succeed, and gives them a new understanding of their own strengths and talents.”

If we raise our expectations and the rigor and coherency of our curriculum, then we will see more educational benefit for all students. The dire reality of poor teacher training and knowledge of the content they teach is a significant problem, but a stronger school-wide curricular program can help to assuage this.

I strongly believe in the need for specialized interventions for students who require the most support. But how can we put in place effective interventions when a strong and well-implemented core curriculum is not present?

Let’s address the foundations first before moving to the clouds.

Experience is Relational and Subjective

Because neither ‘memory banks’ nor ‘representations’ of stimuli exist in the brain, and because all that is required for us to function in the world is for the brain to change in an orderly way as a result of our experiences, there is no reason to believe that any two of us are changed the same way by the same experience. If you and I attend the same concert, the changes that occur in my brain when I listen to Beethoven’s 5th will almost certainly be completely different from the changes that occur in your brain. Those changes, whatever they are, are built on the unique neural structure that already exists, each structure having developed over a lifetime of unique experiences. (Bold added)

–Robert Epstein, “The Empty Brain” on Aeon

Epstein’s challenge to the “information processing” model is highly relevant to education and worth considering the implications of. I would pair this reading with the quantum theory of QBism: QBism challenges the notion of an “objective reality,” suggesting instead that reality lies in the eye of the beholder.

On Venture Capital and Education

By Jim Gordon [CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons]
If you care about education, it’s worth paying close attention to what’s going down in Silicon Valley. The hyperdrive capitalism of venture investment, with its raw focus on the rapid scale of the highest performing and rapid failure of all the rest, parallels and in some ways informs edtech and charter models.

There’s certainly a healthy and necessary space in education for a private marketplace of rapid iteration, scale, and fail. But there’s also a necessity for the less efficient but robust, slow-growth, long-term models of public schools.

In The New Yorker there is an interesting piece on Y-Combinator’s Sam Altman relevant to this. It’s interesting purely as a biopic, but scattered throughout are insights into the driving mindsets and ethics of Silicon Valley. Let’s take a closer look at some quotes from the article with the frame of education in mind.

Altman, as he nursed a negroni after dinner, had his own warning for the timid: “Democracy only works in a growing economy. Without a return to economic growth, the democratic experiment will fail. And I have to think that YC is hugely important to that growth.”

Democracy needs a heck of a lot more than just a viable economy. It needs strong civic institutions and an active citizenry that has a shared understanding of how to engage with those institutions and of their purpose. Public education should serve the public in cultivating shared civic knowledge and values.

. . . In his book “Hackers & Painters,” Graham calculated that smart hackers at a startup could get 36x more work done than the average office drone—and that they would, therefore, eventually blow up employment as we know it. He made this sound patriotic and fun; how could an oligarchic technocracy go wrong?

Indeed? How could a focus solely on only the most productive and efficient members of society go wrong? In education, imagine if we only invested in the most gifted and talented. The rest would be herded into service professions or unskilled labor. A meritocracy! Wait. Isn’t that more or less how things used to be before the advent of a public education . . .

. . . And he told me, “It’s bad for the companies and bad for Silicon Valley if companies can stay alive just because they’re [associated with Y-Combinator]. It’s better for everyone if bad companies die quickly.”

This is a driving philosophy of venture capital and rapid scale that Silicon Valley pursues. Scale the few most successful ventures rapidly, and fail the remainder. With schools, we could only invest in and scale the ones that demonstrated strong academic performance — all the rest we would close. Sounds good, right? Kids should only be in schools that have demonstrated their worth.

But there’s a problem with rapid scale in terms of sustainability:

. . .The truth is that rapid growth over a long period is rare, that the repeated innovation required to sustain it is nearly impossible, and that certain kinds of uncontrollable growth turn out to be cancers. . . Every great startup—Facebook, Airbnb—has no idea why it’s growing at first, and has to figure that out before the growth stalls. Growth masks all problems.”

A school could be high performing, but not such a great place to be.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t a place for markets in the education system. A market doesn’t have to mean Silicon Valley style scale and fail.

A more sustainable model can be seen in an article in the NY Times about MailChimp.

…it’s possible to create a huge tech company without taking venture capital, and without spending far beyond your means. It’s possible, in other words, to start a tech company that runs more like a normal business than a debt-fueled rocket ship careening out of control. Believe it or not, start-ups don’t even have to be headquartered in San Francisco or Silicon Valley.

. . . You can simply start a business, run it to serve your customers, and forget about outside investors and growth at any cost.

Schools that do this work are the ones that get better: they put their focus on service to their students and families and adapt accordingly.

But there’s other ways that those who abide by the scale and fail model are investing in, recognizing the limitations of a brick and mortar approach.  Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen (you may have heard of AltSchools?) lays out the long-game for software and tech in the education industry in this Vox interview:

Primary education in the US is a monopoly. It’s a public sector monopoly with very little competition. Even the charter schools end up under sustained attack for violating the monopoly. You see this most recently in New York with De Blasio trying to shut them down. A government-sponsored monopoly is not easy to move.

. . . New technologies tend to vaporize on impact with those institutions. The last thing a unionized public school wants to do is to fundamentally change how they operate. Of course they don’t want to adopt new technology. It’s antithetical to the philosophy.

So the solution? Software!

Look, there’s great potential for technology in the education sphere, and I think experiments like AltSchools and Udacity are well worth making. But Andreessen’s premise here is false. Having worked in NYC public schools for even the short length of time that I have, I’ve seen so many tech fads get readily embraced by educators and districts that it’s become ridiculous. Rather than “vaporizing on impact,” new tech fads rather seem to become desperately embraced and then just as hurriedly discarded. Harried educators and administrators would love it if a SMART Board or data system or robot would magically and rapidly improve the outcomes for their kids!

But I do think Andreessen makes a more balanced analysis and point here:

We can’t revamp the entire system. Nobody can. But I think more and more, there are gaps in what the current system can accommodate compared to what people actually want. There are opportunities to build on the edges, around the sides, parallel systems. And at the very least introduce choice. In the best-case scenario, it becomes a real challenger to the status quo.

I fully agree that there are massive gaps and many opportunities to better serve our nation’s students, and I for one welcome the evolution of edtech and tools and software, as well as the vibrant niches of effective charter models and networks. But we’re on a quixotic mission if we’re shooting for supplanting public education systems, rather than supplementing them.

The argument for why this is so can be viewed in statements that Barack Obama and Vox’s Ezra Klein have made about the function of public institutions vs. private ones (I’ve posted this before):

President Barack Obama at the White House Frontiers Conference:

The final thing I’ll say is that government will never run the way Silicon Valley runs because, by definition, democracy is messy. This is a big, diverse country with a lot of interests and a lot of disparate points of view. And part of government’s job, by the way, is dealing with problems that nobody else wants to deal with.

. . . sometimes we get, I think, in the scientific community, the tech community, the entrepreneurial community, the sense of we just have to blow up the system, or create this parallel society and culture because government is inherently wrecked. No, it’s not inherently wrecked; it’s just government has to care for, for example, veterans who come home. That’s not on your balance sheet, that’s on our collective balance sheet, because we have a sacred duty to take care of those veterans. And that’s hard and it’s messy, and we’re building up legacy systems that we can’t just blow up.

Ezra Klein in an interview with Tyler Cowen:

I will say one thing about both government and private-sector production, which is something that I do think is important is there is an advantage to being willing to do kludgy, difficult, somewhat unpleasant things.

. . . As you say, there’s an attraction — recognizing the government is inefficient — to just saying, “Well, let’s just do cash transfer for everything. Let’s go UBI for everything.” But there is a lot that government does, often not that well, that somebody needs to be doing, because a lot of the people you want to help are actually really difficult to help. This is something . . . this is one of the things I believe strongly in policy that we underrate.

A lot of what we’re trying to do in government is not help people who want “free stuff,” but is help people who are actually very, very difficult to help. This is particularly true in health care.

And particularly true in education. The work of education is a slow, complicated, incremental process that will benefit from new technologies, software, and schools, but that will not rapidly scale, and provides a public service that makes rapid failure of massive amounts of schools or students a nonviable option.