Essential reads on segregation

In case you’ve missed it, the Baltimore Sun has run an excellent series on segregated schools in Baltimore County: Bridging the Divide

Part 1: The struggle to move past segregated schools

  • “You are potentially causing our property values in Academy Heights to plummet!”

Part 2: Struggles of new East Baltimore school show challenges of integration

  • “Schools filled with students living in high concentrations of poverty are like boats going against a strong tide.”

Part 3: Within integrated schools, de facto segregation persists

  • “Victoria Howard said being in classes with black students made her feel more at ease, but she believes “nothing changes if everyone’s just too comfortable.”
  • “Exposing people to being around different kinds of people is how we acclimate and how we change,” she said. “And that’s important when we leave high school. Because out in the world, you don’t get to pick who you’re around.”

And The Grade has a behind-the-scenes take on the creation of the series.

“If I had covered it with someone who thought the same way as I did, it probably wouldn’t have been as strong,” says Green.

And here’s another comprehensive piece on integrating schools from City Limits

To increase diversity Goldsmith says, “You need middle class families that have some commitment to public education and are willing to vote with their child.” You can attract such families, he says, with schools that offer a quality education, have inspired leadership and can “create an environment that is welcoming and inclusive to all.”

This is from an older piece about the Upper West Side squabbles over rezoning. Worth bringing back up here.

“It’ll take thousands, maybe a hundred thousand dollars off the value of my apartment”. . .

. . .”We moved here basically for that school, and that school is kind of like our right.”

Because apparently “public” is now synonymous with “private.”

Public service over property value: Ann Holton suggests how white parents can make integration a value

My parents did a good job of helping us feel like we were part of something bigger than ourselves, something that really mattered. That influenced me in all kinds of ways.

“It influenced me toward a career in public service, and more immediately, the experience of going to school with people who were from different backgrounds. My background was not only white, but homogenous: Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, upper middle class. I didn’t know much of anybody who came from different backgrounds, and that experience of being with folks who were different, and yet discovering how much similarity we had across differences, it was a very important part of my education, and I have valued that throughout and including in my role as secretary of education.”

Anne Holton, in an interview with the74

Nikole Hannah-Jones argues that democracy depends upon individual parents thinking more about the common good

Democracy works only if those who have the money or the power to opt out of public things choose instead to opt in for the common good. . . .

“If there is hope for a renewal of our belief in public institutions and a common good, it may reside in the public schools.”

Derrell Bradford responds to Hannah-Jones’s piece, suggesting that individuals should have equal power to public institutions

Our relationship with public institutions — and schools in particular — is only in balance when the individual can wield equivalent force against them. Achieving a state of balance with the nation’s public schools rests not in the constant altruistic acquiescence to them, but the strategic self-interested defiance of them. . . .

“In the school districts of the rich and the ruling, this equilibrium between voluntary participation and the ability to exit is the essential tension that drives performance. It’s a game for the privileged, but it’s a game they win.”

Bradford’s assertion here is interesting. But should individuals be able to wield “equivalent force” against public institutions? The “public” is by definition an aggregate of individuals—the people as a whole—and an institution that is a “public” institution therefore serves the interests of the many, rather than that of the individual.

Yes, it is true that those with wealth and power are not reliant upon public institutions. But however much those institutions have failed over the years, as Bradford rightly points to, I’m highly skeptical that in the absence of those institutions things would be better.

Public institutions, however problematic, get better through greater civic engagement, not the reverse. I would propose that if those that are better off chose to get more involved in those institutions–as Nikole Hannah Jones has suggested we do–than maybe we’d all be better off.

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/

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/

 

How Did New York Become So Segregated?

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How did New York end up so segregated? As part of my NY Policy Fellowship, I did a little bit of research to try and answer this question.

The Great Migrations

During WWI, industrial urban cities in the North actively recruited Southern black laborers due to labor shortages and war production demand. By the 1920s, Harlem housed 200,000 African Americans and became an epicenter of black literature, music, and visual arts. NYC’s black population expanded from 140,000 in 1910 to 660,000 by 1940. Only a quarter of that 1940 population were born in New York. Economic demand during and after WWII similarly spurred a large influx from southern states. By 1970, NYC’s black population was at 2,350,000, and Buffalo’s at 108,000. Meanwhile, “NYC’s Hispanic population increased by almost twenty times between 1940 and 2010, while its total non-Hispanic White population decreased by over 60% over the same time period.”

Redlining

After WWII, the Federal Housing Authority provided funding for homeownership for many white working class families. However, some banks would refuse to lend money to aspiring black homeowners. The practice of “redlining” refers to maps banks would keep of neighborhood racial demographics, which they would use to determine “bad investments.” Banks would then deny services to African American families, or selectively raise prices. This practice furthered racial segregation, and also guaranteed that many black neighborhoods were either underdeveloped or left in disrepair.

Urban Redevelopment and Highways

Robert Moses engineered passage and amendment to the 1942 Hampton-Mitchell Bill (enacted as the Urban Redevelopment Companies Law), which allowed the displacement of communities (typically low income) by private developers. The NY State Court of Appeals, in a 1949 case, Dorsey v. Stuyvesant Town Corp., later upheld the right of private property owners to discriminate by race. The court ruled: “It is well settled that the landlord of a private apartment or dwelling house may, without violating any provision of the Federal or State Constitutions, select tenants of its own choice because of race, color, creed or religion … Clearly, housing accommodation is not a recognized civil right.”

In a trend-setting development, Moses built the first highway through a crowded urban center, the Cross Bronx Expressway. This development, like the Stuyvesant development on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, resulted in the displacement of lower-income families and reinforced segregation.

Other cities in New York followed suit, with the Skyway in Buffalo and the I-81 in Syracuse similarly stranding low-income families in noisy, polluted inner cities, while creating swift escape routes for suburban commuters. Coupled with strict zoning rules and the lack of affordable housing and public transportation options in many suburban areas, poorer families found it difficult to gain the means either to leave or improve their high poverty neighborhoods.

Loss of Industrial Jobs

While the Fair Housing Act of 1968 made redlining practices illegal, the stagnation of the economy in the 1970s, coupled with deindustrialization, spurred the flight of white and middle class families to suburbs, leaving behind inner city neighborhoods with few employment opportunities and resources. According to EdBuild, twenty nine of the country’s 50 most extremely segregated school districts are in the Rust Belt, with New York State number 6 on that list.

Fruitless Fights for Integration

In the 1950s and 60s, a Reverend in Brooklyn, Milton Galamison, fought for integration, first as chair for the Education Chapter of the NAACP, then as founder of the Parent’s Workshop for Equality in New York City Schools. His group “presented a series of integration proposals to the New York City Board of Education, none of which were implemented.” In 1964, Galamison led a group of civil rights organizations to boycott NYC public schools, but he did not gain the support of the teacher’s union and later lost the support of national civil rights groups. In the late 60s, he began fighting for community control of schools, creating tension with the teacher’s union, the Al Shanker-led UFT. This tension came to a head in Ocean-Hill Brownsville in 1968. Tensions between labor rights and community control advocates, as well as between advocates of integration and of black separatism, created fissures in liberal thought that shifted key narratives and perceptions of public education. As Dana Goldstein notes in her book, Teacher Wars, “Ocean Hill-Brownsville created rifts between teacher unions and black civil rights groups, as well as between liberal elites and the union.” These rifts and tensions continue to reverberate today, especially via the critique of teachers unions and traditional district schools offered by parental choice and charter school advocates.

NYC has never been under a desegregation order. There were a few efforts made to increase diversity through an open enrollment program or by shifting zone lines, but the fiscal crisis of the 1970s and subsequent white flight ended any further efforts until very recently.

In 2014, State Commissioner John King and Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch initiated the Socioeconomic Integration Pilot Program (SIPP), providing grant funding to school districts that sought to integrate student populations by socioeconomic status. A number of school districts are now implementing programs, including Manhattan District 1.

Beyond Race & Class: Special Education Segregation

From 1894 through the mid 1900s in New York state, increasing attention was paid to the identification and specialized support for students with disabilities due to legislation. In 1967, a “handicapped child” was definedas an individual who ‘because of mental, physical or emotional reasons, cannot be educated in regular classes but can benefit by special services and programs.’ This definition summarized state policy, which since the early years of the century had favored removing handicapped children from regular classrooms and schools, and placing them in ‘special classes,’ home teaching, or private schools.” The policy of segregation and outsourcing of support began shifting in the 1960s. Federal legislation, culminating in the 1990 IDEA act, pushed states towards inclusion in a “least restrictive setting,” and NCLB in 2001 introduced school accountability for educating students with disabilities. However, in an IBO report as of 2013, 25% of students identified with a disability continue to be educated in separate, “self-contained” programs. The outcomes for self-contained students are not positive, while some research seems to suggest that including students with disabilities in general education classrooms has more positive outcomes for them, while not harming the outcomes of general education students. Yet the populations of students with disabilities are far from evenly distributed between schools.

Smorgasbord: Differences, and Teaching for All

“1960s Ann Arbor Town Club smorgasbord — advertising postcard.” by Wystan is licensed under CC BY 2.0

People raised in different contexts think differently

Western and Eastern societies see the world differently. “If we are what we see, and we are attending to different stuff, then we are living in different worlds.” It may even come down to the difference between a historical context of growing wheat vs. growing rice. BBChttp://www.bbc.com/future/story/20170118-how-east-and-west-think-in-profoundly-different-ways

Rich people and poor people see the world differently. Poor people pay much more attention to other people around them. Science of Ushttp://nymag.com/scienceofus/2017/02/how-rich-people-see-the-world-differently.html

Risk-taking is an adaptive strategy when raised in chaotic environments. “Given that fast life-history strategies are triggered in uncertain situations, a stable environment can work wonders.Nautilushttp://nautil.us/issue/31/stress/when-destructive-behavior-makes-biological-sense

So you want to become rich in the United States? The best way is to become rich is to be born into the right set of parents. The second best way is to find a rich spouse. The Economisthttp://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2017/02/economist-explains-0?fsrc=scn/tw/te/bl/ed/howtogetrichinamerica

And the rich are more likely to become entrepreneurs. The Guardianhttps://amp.theguardian.com/small-business-network/2017/feb/20/rags-riches-privileged-entrepreneurs-business-resilience-michelle-mone

How we self-classify our own race is problematic for assertions based on race. There’s a tendency for those of mixed descent to self-classify as white. American Prospecthttp://prospect.org/article/latino-flight-whiteness#.WKBUbz2F_l4.facebook

And maybe instead of classifying animals into species, we’d do better to identify them by their key traits and characteristics. RealClearSciencehttp://www.realclearscience.com/articles/2016/11/05/scientists_suggest_doing_away_with_species_110078.html

Men’s brains are bigger than women’s. Mindhackshttps://mindhacks.com/2017/02/07/sex-differences-in-brain-size/

But there are few differences in cognitive ability between men and women. https://mindhacks.com/2017/02/14/sex-differences-in-cognition-are-small/

Men and women require different types of check-ins to keep long-distance relationships going. Men need face-to-face check-ins, while a phone call is enough for women. The Guardianhttps://amp.theguardian.com/science/2017/feb/20/key-to-keeping-friendships-alive-different-for-men-and-women-scientists-say

Therefore, promoting diversity is key

Once trees in the rainforest are connected with vines, they don’t function as individual trees anymore—at least from the perspective of ant diversity. The Atlantichttps://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/02/each-tree-is-an-island/515583/?utm_source=twb

Highways may have contributed to rural and urban division in American politics, as revealed by maps. National Geographichttp://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/11/robert-berlo-map-collection/

School choice may lead to more segregation. CityLabhttps://www.citylab.com/housing/2017/02/what-could-reverse-dcs-intense-school-segregation/516783/

As demonstrated by Denver, a much lauded exemplar of school choice. NPR Edhttp://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2017/02/20/515359394/the-mile-high-promise-and-risk-of-school-choice

“The Waltons would have a more dramatic impact on the well-being of children by paying their workers a minimum wage of $15 an hour than they do by opening charter schools and enfeebling community public schools.” The NY Review of Bookshttp://www.nybooks.com/articles/2016/12/08/when-public-goes-private-as-trump-wants-what-happens/

Though the use of vouchers may possibly reduce some racial stratification, in a convoluted sort of way. The Atlantichttps://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/02/the-voucher-paradox/516747/

But vouchers are viewed as problematic even by many of those within the “school choice” charter community. “I’ve worked in charter schools nationally for two decades, and the vast majority of people I know who work in and support charters are deeply troubled by vouchers.” Ascend Learning blog: http://www.ascendlearning.org/blog/diane-ravitch-reply/

Ben Carson could undo past efforts at housing desegregation. The New York Timeshttps://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/23/upshot/how-ben-carson-at-housing-could-undo-a-desegregation-effort.html?smid=tw-upshotnyt&smtyp=cur&_r=0

A challenge to previous research that suggested that greater diversity generates distrust. The distrust may simply stem from good old prejudice. Scientific Americanhttps://www.scientificamerican.com/article/does-diversity-create-distrust/?WT.mc_id=SA_TW_MB_NEWS

Unfortunately, training may not be enough to remove racial bias. “There’s no good proof that implicit bias can be permanently unlearned, and little evidence about the best way to unlearn it.” Nautilushttp://nautil.us/blog/can-training-help-people-un_learn-a-lifetime-of-racial-bias

“Having a shared sense of identity, norms, and history generally promotes trust.” The American Interesthttp://www.the-american-interest.com/2016/07/10/when-and-why-nationalism-beats-globalism/

“Americans can do better. Remember: America doesn’t just have arguments; America is an argument—between Federalist and Anti-Federalist world views, strong national government and local control, liberty and equality, individual rights and collective responsibility, color-blindness and color-consciousness, Pluribus and Unum.” The Atlantichttps://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/11/post-election-reconciliation/506027/

And teach everyone well

A project-based learning critique: “if we’re designing schools and syllabus for the real word, that means teaching everyone well, not just a fraction of the lucky sperm club.” Tom Bennett’s blog: https://behaviourguru.blogspot.co.uk/2016/11/project-based-learning-id-give-it-five.html

The JUMP Math curriculum speaks to just that type of whole-class design, and is showing strong signs of success. “Our data shows that if you teach to the whole class, the whole class does better.” Quartzhttps://qz.com/901125/a-mathematician-has-created-a-method-of-teaching-that-is-proving-there-is-no-such-thing-as-a-bad-math-student/

Along the same lines, I argue for a focus on an inclusive, rigorous curriculum and expectations for all students as the best way to support students with disabilities, rather than focusing on abstract, idealized models. Schools & Ecosystemshttps://schoolecosystem.wordpress.com/2017/02/18/special-education-inclusion-or-specialized-intervention/

Acquiring knowledge and then thinking about how it fits into what we already know helps boost our attention. PsyBloghttp://www.spring.org.uk/2016/02/better-brain-training-oldest-technique.php

Here’s 20 observable characteristics of effective teaching. TeachThoughthttp://www.teachthought.com/pedagogy/20-observable-characteristics-of-effective-teaching

For faster learning, interleave studying with sleep. BPS Research Digesthttps://digest.bps.org.uk/2016/11/10/for-faster-learning-and-longer-retention-interleave-study-sessions-with-sleep/

Napping, after all, is just as effective as cramming. BigThinkhttp://bigthink.com/philip-perry/napping-just-as-good-as-cramming-before-a-final-study-claims

And if you want to grow new brain cells, go running instead of lifting weights: PsyBloghttp://www.spring.org.uk/2016/02/study-tests-whether-lifting-weights-running-grows-new-brain-cells.php

“a well-targeted tree campaign could be of the smartest investments a hot, polluted city can make.” And those plantings should be well-targeted to improve air quality for schools. Voxhttp://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2016/11/4/13510352/planting-trees-pollution-heat-waves

Another smart investment? The buildings we house students in. “People know that their physician plays an important role in their health, but sometimes building managers can play a nearly equal role,” says Allen. “The janitor of a school, for example, has a big impact on the health of those kids.” National Geographichttp://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/urban-expeditions/green-buildings/surprising-ways-green-buildings-improve-health-sustainability/

 

 

Smorgasbord: It’s Been A While

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I know, I’ve mostly stopped posting. A conflux of being-really-busy at work, getting-really-sick (turns out I’m allergic to a certain type of antibiotic), and being-overwhelmed-with-information (I get way too many newsletters) and needing to just kind of hit the pause button on everything. And winter.

I guess there’s some kind of game going on, but I’m not a football person, so I’m posting this instead. So here you go:

 

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.

What has been lost in higher ed

“What has gone awry in American politics is not purely that we’ve got issues with the mechanics of democracy,” he said. “Over the past two generations, the idea of education being about teaching people how to engage in public affairs has been lost. At one point, the core curriculum at the college level was focussed on: How do you get ready to be an active citizen in America? How do we make democracy endure? Today, education is almost exclusively thought of in terms of career preparation. That’s what we’ve lost.”

–Longwood University’s W. Taylor Reveley IV, as reported by Evan Osnos, “Time Kaine’s Radical Optimism” in The New Yorker

Economies as Ecosystems

“Both political camps accept a version of the elegant premise of economic equilibrium, which inclines them to a deterministic, linear way of thinking. But why not look at the economy in terms of the messy complexity of natural systems, such as the fractal growth of living organisms or the frantic jive of atoms? These frameworks are bigger than the sum of their parts, in that you can’t predict the behaviour of the whole by studying the step-by-step movement of each individual bit.”

—George Zarkadakis, “The economy is more a messy, fractal living thing than a machine

Smörgåsbord: American Stupidity, Fracturing Communities, and Integrating Minds

I’m no longer calling this the “Sunday” Smorgasbord. Because I’m releasing this one on Saturday. Just because.

American Stupidity

Sol Stern is concerned about how dumb America has become. He blames curricular incoherence.

The incoherence of economic and political policy isn’t helping, either. According to a Harvard Business School report:

“Divisive political rhetoric and an uninformed national debate have confused the average American about what the country needs to do to restore the economy. . . .

“There is almost a complete disconnect between the national discourse and the reality of what is causing our problems and what to do about them. This misunderstanding of facts and reality is dangerous, and the resulting divisions make an already challenging agenda for America even more daunting.”

Our organizational systems are also pretty stupid.

And physical context can have a big impact: students become more stupid when it’s too hot in their schools. Heat “erases nearly three quarters of the impact of a highly effective teacher.”

Yet we still argue about whether global warming is even a thing.

Meanwhile, young men who could be working (and thinking) are playing video games, and the happier for it, so long as they can stave off reality while living at their parent’s house.

Fracturing Communities

But what kind of jobs are out there for many? Trickle-down ain’t working, and the incentives are for the rich to take all the money they can and horde it from the have-nots.

And they will do all they can to ensure the children of the have-nots keep out of the schools where they have stake in property, as the residents of Lincoln Towers on the Upper West Side demonstrate.

NY Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal and state Senator Brad Hoylman, eager to show their support for affluent parents, claim that rezoning the school district would “fracture the community“—which is ironic, since the proposed rezoning would increase neighborhood integration across race and class. One would think that would actually be fostering greater community. . . but, you know.

Conor Williams warns that while millenial parents are less tied to geographic stakes, and thus interested in open enrollment systems, without policies that promote equity, such parents will find “ways to massage these systems into protecting their privilege.”

Integrating Minds

We can share, reinforce, and supplement our memories with our friends and build a “transactive memory system.”

And within our own brains, the more integrated the different parts of our brain are, the better we do on complex tasks.

Gardening is good for your health. So something to be said for all those school gardens.

And if you want kids to get creative, give them simple toys and let them be bored with them.