The Bank of the Federal-Academic Complex

The battle for education reform is being occurring along three major axes — power (among States and Districts), childcare (among Large-Scale Consumers of Educated Workers and Parents) and money (Teachers and Publishers). Tradtionally, Teacheres were able to oversee all three of these axes through united front organizations they created — such as the NEA, AFT, NPTA, and Districts whose boardmembers were elected by the NEA, AFT, and NPTA activists. Unfortunately for Teachers, Democrats created a new power nucleus which is now overseeing a radical transformation in the teaching profession.

In 1950 President Truman created the National Science Foundation, and in 1979 President Carter created the Department of Education. As outline in Jonathan Cole’s excellent book, The Great American University, the NSF was created to use America’s excellence in the practical sciences to better society. The Department of Ed was a tentative move to subsidize teachers while removing a small amount of power from both States and Districts.

As the NSF & DOE matured together, it created a federal-academic complex unlike any other player in the political economy of education. DOE bureaucrats wanted more power, the NSF “Research Directorates” wanted more funds, the academics who won NSF grants wanted more freedom to research, all these players interacted with advocates for childcare. The Federal-Academic Complex contains interests at least as aligned as other blocs such as “teachers” or “publishers,” so is capable of political action, but it became interested in all of the axes in the education debate (power, childcare, and money), due to its diversity of operating environments.

In short, the interlocking relationships between DOE and NSF stakeholders created a federal-academic complex, or “bank.” Both Parents and Large-Scale Consumers of Education Workers were always able to translate their interest in childcare into money, but the DOE/NSF (“the federal-academic complex”) made it easier to translate their interest in money into political power over education. The same of course was true for Districts and States, who had the standing Federal-Academic complex to lobby and influence. Likewise, Teachers and Publishers could invest funds (and expected funds) harvested from education funding and translate that into power through the Federal-Academic Complex.

With the exception of States (who viewed the Federal-Academic Complex as essentially an arm of the federal government, and so focused on opposing it), every rational actor began using the bank of the Federal-Academic Complex to pursue its interests. States rationally opposed the Federal-Academic Complex, other rational players rationally used it. Teachers, suffering from the lobotomy of low wages and arrogant in their united front organizations, stupidly saw the complex simply as another source of profit and ignored the changing political landscape.

Districts put up propaganda posters in favor ofhe NSF and DOE, and fawned over funding for NSF Computer Labs and other sources of funding that could be used to weaken State power. Large-Scale Consumers of Educated Workers used the Federal-Academic Complex to push for a better educated workforce. Publishers, observing the possibility to increase their revenues, used the Federal-Academic Complex to push for changes that would require buying more goods and services from publishers. Parents, the easiest of all forces to satisfy, slept soundly knowing that entrance of a new force meant it was even less likely would have to care for their own children.

Politically naive teachers imagined the Federal-Academic Complex would mean higher pay without greater responsibilities. And so they voted in blocs in favor of intiatives that aggrandized the Federal-Academic Complex, and subsidized the step by step the encirclement of their own united front organizations.

They Want Money

Different forces in the education reform debate are fighting over different resources. States and school boards are fighting over power. Parents and Large-Scale Consumers of Educated Workers are fighting over childcare. And teachers and publishers are fighting over money.

States and School Boards both focus on power. Every organization wants to exist on its own terms, without having to bow or beg from others. Both States and school boards have the ability to raise taxes, hire and fire workers, and impact the lives of many citizens through decisions related to children. Both are naturally annoyed by the power of the other. From the perspective of states and school boards, education reform is just an opportunity for States to disempower school boards and aggrandize themselves. States have been largely successful in their struggle.

Parents and Large-Scale Consumers focus on childcare. From the perspective of parents, “childcare” means a place you that will take care of children without messing up their features while parents work. What this means depends on social class. For middle and high class parents, schools should not interfere with the natural progression of children to college or other advanced training. For low class parents, schools should not teach children to become socially awkward or talk back. Large-Scale Consumers of Educated Workers, by contrast, want future laborers who are highly productive (that is, can be hired with an expectation of a large return on capital)

While States v. School Boards fight over power is relatively straightforward, the fight over child-care is more complex. First, Parents are highly mobile, and can move out in and out of school boards, while Large-Scale Consumers of Educated Workers are immobile. (While there are often multiple local schools within driving of a job, for political reasons Large-Scale Consumers of Educated Workers prefer to hire in a country proportionally to its revenues from that country.) Further, Parent are risk-adverse, while Large-Scale Consumers are risk-tolerant, when it comes to individual students.

For instance, consider these two possible trade-offs

  • All students in a school become factory drones v. More students talk back to their parents
  • All students in a school go to college v. Some go to college, some start businesses, some fall behind

While the details of these trade-offs are different (low income parents see short-term costs as catastrophic, while high income parents have a future time orientation and so are risk-adverse about future events. Because of the very high rewards for education in the modern economy (as pointed out by the ‘Occupy’ movement), the difference in return-on-investment between a very highly educated worker and a college-educated worker is higher than between a college-educated worker and a high-school-educated worker, but because middle and high class parents fear that it will be their child who does not go to college, they are intolerant of policies that would allow some students to prosper and others to flail.

This fight appears to have been conceded before it began by Large-Scale Consumers of Educated Workers. Instead, Large-Scale Consumers and Parents seem to be working together to create a public education system that creates a floor in terms of proficiency, with Large-Scale Consumers content to allow risky decision to be made after high school graduation.

Teachers and Publishers fight over money. For both Teachers and Parents, education funding is a source of money that can be milked to support lifestyles that could not otherwise be afforded. Teacher and Publishers tend to be active in the political space in order to collect “rents” — to get States and School Boards to provide a greater return-on-investment to their efforts than could be achieved in a free market. Both Teachers and Publishers are rentiers, primarily concerned with improving their own bottom-lines at the expense of children put in their care.

States and School Boards are neutral to the outcomes of education — they simply want to control it. Parents and Large Scale Consumers of Educated Workers both want good education systems, but different in their risk tolerance. Both Teachers and Publishers are essentially parasitical to schools, seeking to divert resources obtained by States and School Boards, at the behest of Parents and Large-Scale Consumers, towards themselves away from children. (Though in the best tradition of marketing, where you take your greatest weakness and claim it is a feature, both Teachers and Publishers identify their own income as being ‘for’ children.)

Education Reform in America is largely a function of the alignment and intelligence of six forces along these three axes. The future of education reform could be predicted if we only knew who would get the power, who would define proper childcare, and who profits.

Review of “The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger,” by Marc Levinson

Some time ago I read The Box, Marc Levinson’s excellent history of the shipping container. The Box reads like a third appendix to Nature’s Metropolis, a debt that the book acknowledges. It is a fascinating description of the importance of platforms in business. And it describes the different responses of labor bosses to ‘the box’ (containerization), and how those responses shape lives today. If you want to see how a technology you take for granted shapes the world, definitely read The Box!

Nature’s Metropolis is a brilliant history of Chicago and the Great West. The book focuses on economic determinism, and how once men create a ‘second nature’ from capital, actions are compelled in the same way that would have been if that build world had been the ‘first nature’ of the place. For instance, rivers make certain transportation methods logical and are part of the first nature of an environment. Railroads make other transportation methods logical, and are part of second nature. Nature’s Metropolis ends with the establishment of the national railroad system. The Box picks up the story generations later, when the railroad system appears to be just natural, and a new second nature is about to be born.

A few months ago I gave a standing-room lecture at my alma mater. I described the business of my employer as focused on platforms, the building (and selling) the infrastructure to allow other people to sell products. Platforms are the components that allow new things to be possible. For instance, wireless internet (WiFi), laptop computers, and HDTVs (TVs which double as computer monitors) allow you to repurpose any media from anywhere in the world as a ‘show’ for an extended family. This could not be done without any piece of the infrastructure — the mobile entertainment platform requires all these scaffolds. Likewise, containerization requires container-ready trucks, container-ready-ships, container-ready trains, and container-ready labor. Without any one of these, containerization is not profitable.

I remember from a young-age hearing about the six-figure salaries of longshoremen on the West Coast. Little did I realiez that this happy payscale was because of wise leadership. While the backwards International Longshoremen’s Association opposed containerization as a threat to jobs on the East Coast, the wiser International Longshore and Warehouse Union (led by a former transportation-industry manager) took a wiser coast: an agreed upon fraction of savings from containerization would go to higher salaries. If only labor agitators in the education sector could be as clever as the ILWU!

My recommendation? Read The Box. It is great introduction to economic history. It is the story of a technology platform that you may not even realize exists. And it a description of how smart unionism can lead to good lives for workers by understanding technologal chnage.

This is Genetic Epistemology

Recently, my man Jean Piaget has been burning up the twittersphere. Piaget is generally associated with “constructivism,” a very popular concept among teachers. Piaget’s theories are useful for teacher’s to know and keep in mind. They are not scientific widely used in the scientific literature. They are not worthwhile tools for policymakers. And they might be useful for politicians.

Confused? Don’t be. Instead, read on!

European psychology, for about a century, was divided between two campus, neither of which would fit comfortable within the bounds of ‘psychology’ as we know it today. One group approached psychology as a branch of applied physiology. Pavlos and his dogs, and French psychometricians who were measuring intelligence as a function of hand size, probably fit into this group. Another simply wrote philosophy and called it science. Freud, Adler, and Jung had all number of bizarre ideas, which would be classified under the term ‘mysticism’ today, and form the second camp. So European psychology was paralyzed between a group of mystics who took the mind seriously, and a group of scientists who did not.

Out of this morass came Jean Piaget, a man trained as a snail researcher with an early interest in Freud’s psychoanalysis. Of all the European “psychologists,” Piaget was thus one of the very few interested in the mind and familiar with science. This combination may have been as rare as the combination of art and technology that made Steve Jobs so influential in our lifetimes.

In either case, Jean Piaget soon develop a theory he called “genetic epistemology,” but which we call “constructivism.” Piaget identified learning as part of the species-nature of mankind. Small children, Piaget reasoned, learned to ‘think’ through physio-motor actions called ‘schemes.’ Grasping, shaking, and crying are examples of schemes. Gradually, interaction with the environment allow children to progress through ‘schemas’ (or schemata), which have mental characteristics. ‘All snails are smaller than dogs’ might be one schema. ‘All dogs are smaller than elephants’ are another.

Reasoning, according to Piaget, is the process of using schemes (or schemata) to manipulate the world. A toddler might ‘reason’ by shaking his fist, and be rewarded through a toy. The world has changed owing to the use of a scheme. An older child might reason through executing schemata. If ‘all snails are smaller than dogs,’ and ‘all dogs are smaller than elephants,’ these schemata can be manipulated to create a new ‘fact’ about the world: ‘All snails are smaller than elephants.’ (Piaget called this stage concrete-operational.)

I don’t want to spend too much time here, but eventually a learner could be expected to think logically with schemata about impossible states of affairs: ‘If all elephants are smaller than dogs, and all dogs are smaller than snails…’ ‘… all elephants are smaller than snails,’ an advanced thinker might say. ‘That is stupid,’ would say a child at the concrete-operational stage. *babble babble* the infant would scheme.

What makes Piaget important is not the specific predictions he made (which were often wrong), or his unifying European psychology (which, partially owing to the Nazis, was in a state of collapse anyway), but that Piaget provided an easy-to-explain description of the mind that focused on nurturing but also neatly matched scientific findings in developmental educational psychology.

Across the Atlantic, American psychologists were beginning to measure ‘working memory,’ the capacity for remembering unrelated bits of nonsense, and discovering that it increased as part of the developmental process. Small children, perhaps unsurprisingly, are low in terms of working memory capacity. Appropriate instruction for young children thus should not be taxing on working memory capacity. Instead, it should build up simple mental structures step by step, and getting exasperated at young children for being ‘dense’ would miss the point. As children get older they are capable of more advanced thinking.’ There is a genetic biological process that underpins this, regardless of what facts the children know. This is all similar to Piaget’s structural ideas, if harder to visualize.

That said, however, Piaget’s theory have an important shortcoming. Like Freud and like snail researchers, he was a big believer in the utility of focusing on the species-nature of his subjects. In modern psychology, this affection is shared by sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists. But much of modern psychology focuses on understanding differences, whether individual or on a group level (like the epigenetic destruction of the North Korean people under the Kim Family Regime, or differences among geographically-based human populations). People are more different from each other than Piaget thought, even and these differences should be recognized.

So what is constructivism, this genetic epistemology? Is it an outdated remnant of a dead stream of psychology? Yes. Is it useful for explaining psychology. Yes. Should policy makers use it? No. Should teachers think about it? Yes. Should politicians be exposed to it? Probably.

How Science Works

Diane Ravitch is a labor agitator with a focus on the education sector. She is interesting to read if you care about union politics as it applies to education from a teacher’s (as opposed to student’s, parent’s, or nation’s perspective). As such following Diane Ravitch on twitter has the same sort of twisted excitement as, say, following a NAMBLA report on age-of-consent laws: they are definitely interested in the subject area, but for all the wrong reasons.

(I’m not sure if the effect of an individual child from a terrible education is worse than the effect of rape at a young age, though I suspect it is.)

In any case, Ravitch recently linked to a blog post, titled “Regents agree to give NY students data to limited corporation run by Gates and operated by Murdoch’s Wireless Gen.” The thrust of the article is that the not-for-profit Gates Foundation is providing funds to use test data to build more effective teacher assessments. The Gates Foundation wants to improve teacher quality, so that makes sense. And Ravitch is a labor agitator, so of course she is against this. So far, so good. Presumably drill-fitters would be against measuring the productivity of drill-fittings to a similar degree.

My friend Mark Safranski was curious about the story thouge. Mark mentioned, I don’t know if their data analysis is valid or reliable. Sounds like they don’t have a model yet but have a contract, and asked Why would this be figured out on the fly?.

The reason a model would be “figured out on the fly” is that this is how science works.

There is a cartoon version of science along these lines

Science is a method for understanding Truth. To understand Truth, a great scientist thinks deeply, and using the tomes he has read along with his powers of reflection, generates a Theory. Then, with great care, an elaborate contraption is created test the Theory. If the test works, the Hypothesis is Proven, and it becomes a Fact. Otherwise, the Theory is Wrong, and the cycle begins again.

This is a ridiculous view of how science works, and that Americans believe it is on prima facia evidence that our education system is deeply broken.

Science is a method for predicting variation. To better predict variation, scientists construct Theories, which are mental models that allow brute facts to be put in some sort of framework. For instance, the theory of Gravity explains the brute fact of an apple on a tree in one moment, and the same apple on the great in the next, into a narrative. Theories are opertaionalized using hypotheses, which generate specific predictions. So gravity on Earth can be operationalized as predicting that gravity acts like an acceleration that forces all object to the ground at a rate of 32.2 feet per second per second. Run enough experiments and you will begin to see this simple hypothesis mis-predict events, which will force you to generate other hypotheses. Eventually you will have a set of hypotheses which predict events enough to be useful to you.

Many individuals who hold the first view, on hearing the news about building a database of student test scores, would be confused. What is the Theory being tested? Why won’t the Great Scientist tell us? How will we easily know if he has discovered Truth, or he is Wrong?

Because this is not how science works, people who think this way believe in Pseudoscience.

Instead, actual scientists would be approach the work in a different manner. These scientists want to know what types of education best prepare students for life outside of school. They look at outcomes, such as health, income, years in college, degrees earned, social class, criminal convictions, and so on. To recognize that to the extent that ‘success’ exists, it is a latent construct that is only imperfectly, and with error, reflected in any one of these measures, using a Theory. These scientists also look at how one can objectively measure student achievement & teacher quality (two different things, certainly), also using Theories. A simple hypothesis is created, and tested on some data. Run enough studies, and the scientists will begin to see how this simple hypothesis mis-predicts events, which forces them to create more hypothesis. Eventually, the scientists have a set of hypotheses which predict student success enough to be useful to policy makers.

It is this process that Diane Ravitch and other labor agitators are deeply opposed to. A world where teacher quality can be assessed is one where bad teachers might be forced to become good teachers or be fired. This breaks worker solidarity, and means that some teachers will work harder, when any good labor organization wants to make working conditions easier for its members.

I believe in student welfare — and having a strong nation — more than I believe in labor agitation, so I support education reform, and oppose pseudoscience.