Category Archives: Education

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More on “America 3.0”: Long Economic Periods

The book America 3.0 (available for purchase from Amazon and Barnes & Noble) describes three long economic periods, based on agriculture, industry, and information, as driving profound social change.

America-3_0-480px

When we fought the Revolution against Britain, America’s economy was based on agriculture and the hydrological cycle. Along with the constants of soil and sun, water (where it fell, how it needed to be diverted, where it ran) determined American economic life. Know a man’s relationship to water, and you knew his realtionship to wealth.

american_rivers_map_md

Around the time of the Civil War against the southern rebels, sun, soil, and water were surprased by coal and rail as the foundation of power and privilege. The great rail network, centered around Chicago, enabled greater economies of scale than had ever been seen before in history. The story of the next century, from the racial strife of the 1860s to the racial strife of the 1960s, was the story of industrialization, scale, and how the benefits of coal would be shared.

american_railroads_md

We’re now changing again. “Information” appears to be valuable, and the economic giants of the day are information racketeers such as Google, Apple, Amazon, and Facebook. The world is becoming much less heavy, and manufacturing on demand (from computer-driven milling to 3D printing) may accelerate the acceleration the eclipse of coal by data.

american_cell_maps_md

We do not know what is next. The industrial age seemed to come to an apogee in the late 1940s, as economies around the world (the US, the UK, France, Germany, the USSR, China, Taiwan, both Koreas, and Japan) established bureaucratic-industrial welfare states managed by experts, with only quixotic variations based on national culture and ideology. But that was a false sunlight, as phony as the widespread popularity of the concentration camps (brought to the US by Franklin Delano Roosevelt) of the 1930s.

We know the world is changing. We know now what comes next.

In this environment, we should focus on giving learners many low cost opportunities and few high-cost high-risk paths. In other words, we should give students “optionality,” where they have many opportunities and few long-term costs. We’re not in an industrial age where we know economies of scale will rule the day, nor even in the long hydraulic age where water was the great idol. Students will have to find their own ways. We should help them.

To do this we should (except for core majors that are needed for national security — say science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) make much of the curriculum optional, and allow students “low-risk” trials in different career paths.

As Tren Griffen and Nassim Taleb posted:

If you ‘have optionality,’ you don’t have much need for what is commonly called intelligence, knowledge, insight, skills, and these complicated things that take place in our brain cells. For you don’t have to be right that often. All you need is the wisdom to not do unintelligent things to hurt yourself (some acts of omission) and recognize favorable outcomes when they occur. (The key is that your assessment doesn’t need to be made beforehand, only after the outcome.)” Being able to make decisions which do not require correctly forecasting the future is a wonderful thing. Not one of the great value investors identified in the series of posts in this blog relies on macro forecasts of the future. Instead, value investors use the optionality of cash to buy after the outcome exists (i.e., a significant drop in intrinsic value). Regarding venture capital, Warren Buffett believes: “If significant risk exists in a single transaction, overall risk should be reduced by making that purchase one of many mutually- independent commitments. Thus, you may consciously purchase a risky investment – one that indeed has a significant possibility of causing loss or injury – if you believe that your gain, weighted for probabilities, considerably exceeds your loss, comparably weighted, and if you can commit to a number of similar, but unrelated opportunities. Most venture capitalists employ this strategy.

It is certainly evil to trick an 18 year old into non-bankruptable loans of tens of thousands of dollars on a worthless major. A 16 year old would be better off learning a trade than learning Shakespeare, especially if that student could learn Shakespeare later. An 18 year old would surely be better off selling drugs (say from a pharmacy, an alcohol ball, a tobacconist shop, or so on) and learning that part of the economy than borrowing money to study political science.

Help our students prepare for an uncertain future, for America’s next stage of economic development. Give them low-cost opportunity and easy failures. Not non-bankruptable student loans.

Closing off the Ghetto

The teaching ranks are loboomized. Administrators are bullies. We interpret and give tests in the wrong way. Our test scores are stagnant, and our bad schools trap parents in stressful jobs and expensive neighborhoods.

Our low performing students (low-socio-economic status and under-represented-minorities) do very badly, but others are merely average. Helping low-performing students is a different tasks, but we can help mediocre-performing students by fixing not just K-12 education, but also colleges.

One reason mediocre students get mediocre outcomes is the presence of the humanities ghetto: a nowhereville of few jobs and little income where most political scientists, historians, and sociologists end up. High school students are famously stupid, and see this ghetto as a promised land where they will make more money than they do in high school, have a socially acceptable job, only have to do fun stuff, and (most importantly) can actually reach.

wages_employment_majors_humanities_ghetto_md

So our goal should be to dissuade students away from the humanities ghetto, and into outcomes with greater return-on-investment that are more socially beneficial (or at least less socially harmful), like marijuana distribution or go-go-dancing.

marijuana_farmer

To do this, we need to make the on-ramp to humanities ghetto a ghost ramp. It’s already a road to nowhere, but if we can severe it we can divert the flow of students to other places.

seattle_ghost_ramps_blocked

We need to decrease the visible attraction and increase the visible costs of getting onto the humanities ghetto on-ramp. To decrease attraction, we should make any humanities courses in high schools optional, and allow students to work in those hours instead. To increase costs, we should either end federal student loan all together, or at least for non-STEM majors. (Both of these approaches are imperfect, but they definitely tilt the playing field away from ghetto majors).

Education reform isn’t merely about better teachers and better tests, but changing the context in which education takes place. Demagogues like Diane Ravitch are right when they say teachers can’t do it all. Policy makers need to do their part, too.

Value Added Testing

Value Added Testing (VAT) is a method of teacher assessment where educators are compared on how much the “value” the “add” thru “tests” (hence the name).

Instead of simply giving students of teachers tests, and comparing the average scores of the teachers’ students to find out the best teachers, VAT looks at how students performan before, during, and after their time under a teacher. Good teachers are expected to make students do better than they would have in the future. Bad teachers are expected to make students do less better than they would have otherwise.

It’s easy to see how VAT can be more far than traditional approaches to interpretting test scores, as far as evaluating teachers. Under old methods of evaluating teachers, the system could be easily rigged by giving favored teachers better students. Those better students would of course do better, regardless of the teacher, because a teacher’s influence is limited. Under VAT, however, such a favored teacher’s influence in retarding future performance of studnets should show up.

VAT’s have a major flaw though that is ignored by anti-testing demagogues, but rarely addressed by supporters. The flaw is not with the VAT itself, but with how the tests are written.

VAT’s come from econometrics, the measure of the economy, where there is a common currency (such as the dollar, the euro, or the yen). A CEO may be evaluated thru a VAT by the board of directors: sure, the value of our company went up 26% under you, but if we look what we should have expected, it should have gone up 30%! VAT is an interesting way of forcing company executives to think long term: if you keep paying executives after you fire them based on a VAT, you can reward executives who were unfairly fired, and punish those who were unfairly kept on, without giving up the ability to rapidly hire and fire

But it is very rare for “common” tests to be used across grade levels. Tests for third graders do not measure “learning,” they typically measure “third grade proficiency.” Tests for fourth graders do not measure “learning,” they measure “fourth grade proficiency.” Thus it’s very hard to compare learning across levels using these tests.

For example, imagine a very good fifth-grader teacher who focuses on each individual student, Miss Smith. Miss Smith tailors instruction for each child. Whether a child is a year behind, at, or a year above grade level, the child gains two grade levels of knowledge under Miss Smith. What a great teacher!

But the VAT model, if used with normal proficiency testing, will not show this. Take the student who was at a 1st grade level. Now that student is as a 3rd grade level. But many tests instead will accurately identify the student as far below grade level. Thus there may be no VAT model. (A bad teacher could have gamed the system, focusing on teaching a few superficial skills measured on the fifth grade tests, instead of helping the student develop across the board.) Likewise, a student who is now at the 7th grade level will till be accurately shown to be at or above grade level. Because a fifth-grade proficiency exam is not designed to measure 7th grade skills, the benefits this student gained from Miss Smith will not show up.

The VAT model is a big improvement on old models of testing. But when combined with inappropriate or archaic tests, VAT can provide deceptive results. Teacher advocates should focus on these, real, drawbacks of VAT-based teacher assessments so the assessments should be improved.

The Enemies of the Federal-Academic Complex

The Federal-Academic Complex is that collection of bureaucrats and researchers that set the educational agenda in the United States. The Federal-Academic Complex does this through understanding the mechanics of education, while being empathetic to the concerns of educational stakeholders (such as parents and employers).

The Federal-Academic Complex has enemies of two classes. The first is composed of conservatives and Republicans who are generally hostile to public spending. One member of this class is Sen. Chuck Grassley, as I described previously. Conservative/Republican opposition to the Federal-Academic Complex is concentrated among an ideological minority in both movements, and I will not address it further in this post.

The second class of enemies is composed of teachers. Teachers and their front organizations (the NEA, the AFT, the NPTA, etc.) used to set the education agenda. Because teachers were unable to education children and were unable to act empathetically to others, they no longer do – that is the role of the Federal-Academic Complex.

An example to teacher hostility to the Federal-Academic Complex is this tweet by Diane Ravitch:

Tax breaks for rich Princeton, pennies for public colleges

Ravitch’s comment is in reaction to an article by Richard Vedder that notes successful universities are successful, in part, for their success in attracting alumni support and federal research grants.

Teachers unions and similar groups do not care how academia works. They simply want to demonize academia (a successful part of the American social fabric) to rescue their own position in public elementary, middle, and high schools (a failed part of the American social fabric).

How Academia Works

Professors, like most people, respond to the incentives of power, influence, and money.

The institution of tenure reduces uncertainty regarding money, and focuses the incentives on power and influence.

Power in academia comes from the number of bodies a professor has under him. These bodies might be apprentices (graduate students he advises), journeymen (post-docs who have a PhD and work at the lab, or staff researchers), or simple workers (lab technicians, etc).

Influence in academia comes from the extent to which one is successful in influencing one’s peers. This is typically measured in terms of influence scores, which are a product of how often the academic is cited, weighted by how important of a publication he is cited in.

The best route to both power and influence is to earn grant money. For example, consider a professor who receives grant money from a federal agency. Some of this money goes to equipment, but the majority goes to employing several graduate students to work on this large project. Likewise, with this funding, he and his team will be writing numerous articles using the latest techniques on very large data sets, and can be expected to quickly become influential in that area. Because these graduate students have him both as an employer and as an academic adviser, when they graduate with their own doctorates, they will be experts at creating ways to detect bad standardized tests (after all, it’s what they’ve been doing for years), in a few years his influence on their careers will be apparent, and they will likewise go about working on similar problems — citing him and each other as they go along.

Because both power and influence are social activities, people and location matter. Grant-funding agencies typical consider an individual’s prior work, and an institution’s prior history of receiving grant funds, in making distributions. An individual who has previously earned grant money and delivered what was promised is more likely to win a grant, all other things being equal, than a researcher who hasn’t. Likewise, an institution that has a history or providing the foundations for success (is it possible for the researcher to actually hire the projected number of assistants quickly? are research facilities available for the work to actually be conducted? etc). This is true whether the institution is quasi-federal, like the National Science Foundation, private, like the Gates Foundation, or private, such as a corporate sponsor.

Peer-reviewed attempt to be blind to the writer. Nonetheless, the editor and the reviewers are public, and the more one knows of their concerns (what are the important questions of the day? what issues must be taken as assumptions? etc.), the more successful one is likely to be. Access to other researchers, both on-site, through personal networks, and through travel to professional conferences, are thus critical.

The importance of location means there is a fierce competition to be a faculty at a large research institution. Bias in working with others in academia is as self-destructive as bias in taking clients in law or in any eat-what-you-kill situation, and you’re spending your time and resources on a luxury rather than a necessity. I’m sure there’s bias in both, but that bias would be most pronounced on those who have found a steady-but-dull existence at the bottom of the heap.

Racism is a disease of the poor. Political bigotry is a disease of the weak. Life is better at ‘big’ schools because you are learning from winners of the system who are focused on expanding their power and influence, instead of acting as tinpot dictators.

The Cloud and Student Achievement

Bruno Behrend of The Heartland Institute recently had an article titled, “Parents, Technology Can Trigger Education Transformation.” In the article, Mr. Behrend discusses his work with Republican Governor Jeb Bush and Democratic Governor Bob Wise to help students become successful through “the cloud” of information technology.

“The Cloud” is originally an information technology term that relates to a view of information technology as a troublesome cost center that is outside the core competencies of individuals, small businesses, and most large organizations. In this view, endorsed by Lou Gerstner and others, companies should give up on being better than their customers in information technology, and accept ‘industry-standard’ levels of performance.

While Bruno uses the term ‘the Cloud’ exclusively in its technological sense, this view of looking to industry-standards probably is the only way that the “Ten Elements of High Quality Digital Learning” he outlines can be met. Those ten elements are (emphasis mine):

• Student Eligibility: All students are digital learners
• Student Access: All students have access to high quality digital content and online courses
• Personalized Learning: All students can customize their education using digital content through an approved provider
• Providers: All students have access to multiple high quality providers.
• Content: Digital Content, instructional materials, and online and blended courses are high quality.
• Instruction: Digital Instruction and teachers are high quality.
• Assessment and Accountability: Student learning is the metric for evaluating the content as instruction.
• Advancement: Students progress based on demonstrated competency.
• Funding: Funding creates incentives for performance, options, and innovation.
• Delivery: Infrastructure supports digital learning.

High quality providers, courses, and teachers are possible if we recognize that teachers unions have failed our country, and that scientific management of education is possible.

Teacher unions and the front organizations they ran — school districts, Parent Teachers Associations, and the like — may belong to the past, especially for the most able learners. For students with behavioral disabilities and maturity deficits, however, some form of daycare will be necessary while more and more of the actual instruction shifts to “the Cloud.”

The Pillars of the Central Actors in the Education Reform Debate

A recent interaction with Michael Josefowicz on twitter made me think of how old some of the components of the two platforms on which American education rested and rests — the Teachers Front Organizations and the Federal-Academic Complex — are. Wikipedia gives some dates:

Federal-Academic Complex

Teachers Front Organizations

It is interesting that the oldest pillar of the Federal-Academic Complex is (the NIH, established in 1930) is younger than the youngest pillar of the Teachers Front Organizations (the AFT, established in 1916). Doubtless the many years of monopoly control over education enjoyed by Teachers Front Organizations have contributed to their lack of empathy.

Educational Equality: The Civil Rights Struggle of Our Day

When I taught a unit on child development, I would tell a story a professor once told me: : His young son talked up proudly to him one day and announced “Cars are alive but trees aren’t.” “Why not?,” asked the professor. “Because trees only move when the wind pushes them, but cars can move all by themselves!”

The child in the story was not stupid. Indeed, as far as brute facts go, the son was not even ignorance. The child made a natural mistake along the way to develop an understanding of what “living” and “not living” meant.

I say this because I am fascinated by a recent blog post, “The Strange Genesis of ‘Education Reform’- How a Crackpot Theory Became National Policy,” which appeared on Mark Naison’s blog, With a Brooklyn Accent. The first two paragraphs are indicative of the rest of the post:

In future generations, historians are likely to tell the following story. Some time during the early 21St Century, a cross section of the top leadership of American society began to panic. They looked at the growing chasm between the rich and poor, the huge size of the nation’s prison population, the growing gulf in educational achievement between blacks and whites and poor and middle class children and decided something dramatic had to be done to remedy these problems.

But instead of critically examining how these trends reflected twenty years of regressive taxation, a futile “war on drugs,” the deregulation of the financial industry, the breaking of unions and the movement of American companies abroad, America’s leaders decided the primary source of economic inequality could be found in failing schools, bad teachers, and powerful teachers unions.

So much of this beginning is right-on: the understanding of the cross-elite nature of the education reform movement, the deep distress of the political class at the nature of America’s public school, the willingness to take radical measures, and so on.

But the author also thinks the reason for this was a focus on “equality.” While the word equality does come up in the education reform debate, it is a coded word, which means nothing at all like what the author thinks it means.

Within the context of education reform, stakeholders are arranged along three dimensions of force. Employers and parents care about child development; Districts and States care about power; Teachers and publishers care about money. Behind this debate states the federal-academic complex of bureaucrats, researchers, and politicians.

But why in the world would anyone care about “equality”?

The only people who care about “Equality” as an end in itself are those that are weak, and thus are least able to influence the debate.

I suspect people who think “equality” matters in the education reform debate also think “equality” mattered in the civil rights debate. Of course it didn’t, policies weren’t changed out of moral desire. The major civil rights policies (whether rules, laws, or rulings), were made by a cross-section of the elite that supported an interventionist foreign policy and recognized the captive nation of African-Americans provided the only intractible source of nationalist opposition against the Federal government possible in the United States at the time. (For context, the British, French, and Portuguese were being torn apart in the post-war world by the forces of natioanlism, as the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires had already been, and the Soviet empire soon would be.)

America wasn’t the first multinational economic and political union — but the Federal Government also didn’t want to be the follow the British Empire into becoming a broken union.

The day of “states rights” as a force capable of starting a revolution were over by the 1940s. The day of nationalism as a force capable of starting a revolution had begun. Men such as Earl Warren helped lead America’s first attempt at breaking a potential sub-nationalism by interning the Japanese.

Men such as Earl Warren helped lead America’s second, smarter, attempt at breaking a potential sub-nationalism by enforcing desegregation. At the same times, patriots (from the Federal perspective) or quislings (from the perspective of would-be black nationalists) such as Martin Luther King were fetted with honors by the elite for their part in this “awakening” moment.

 

There were other forces at work too, of course, but those forces were provincial, self-interested, and soon to fall back into the noise of everyday political tumult. On a grand scale, the story of the Civil Rights era is a story of the abortion of a internal threat to the Federal government.

In our own day, the national security of the United States is at risk by our terrible public education system. This is because our broken education system means that our critical infrastructure is run by Chinese (and Indians, and Russians, and other foreign nationals).

When “equality” is used in this debate, it is not used to refer to closing the achievement gap between different groups, or any other nicety that would feel good but not flatter major forces. Rather, it is used in the sense that Steve Jobs used it when he said, “Equal opportunity to me more than anything means a great education” — in other words, nothing at all like addressing economic inequality.

There are other players at work too, provincial and self-interested ones such as teachers or parents, but on a grand scale, the story of Education Reform is the story of an attempt to abort an internal threat to the Federal government.

Let’s hope they — we — succeed.

Parents and the Two Income Trap

One of the dimensions of force in the education reform debate is child-care, with both parents and large employers viewing schools primarily as a way to turn children into adults with specifics skills, attitudes, and knowledge. Of the three dimensions of force (money, power, and childcare), childcare is the one with the least complex. While teachers and publishers battle each other for the chance to divert money away from children and to themselves, and while States and Districts squabble over political power, parents and large employers do not disagree about much. Both desire children to become productive members of society.

Importantly, both also suffer from a collective action problem. That is, the cost for making America’s education system world-class is high, and any individual parent or employer can opt-out by simply renting better childcare on their own. For employers this means paying slightly more for one of the competent workers, and for parents this means paying slightly more for one of the competent schools. The consequences for employers and employees of the first part of this is clear: a greater labor cost means a higher standard of living (and least in the short run) for competent workers, and greater automation and outsourcing to compensating for it, leading to a lower standard of living (at least in the short run) for those automated or outsourced out of a job.

The consequences for parents are more profound.

The K-12 education market in the United States is profoundly warped. Parents typically buy access to good schools through pay rent or mortgages in good school districts. Because the teaching profession has been lobotomized through low wages, sending children to many schools would be morally tantimount to child abuse. Bidding wars thus erupt to gain access to these good schools, in the forms of expensive mortgages and high rents. People who actually own this property (apartment managers, real estate developers, and mortgage holders) become rentiers who profit at the expense of parents trying to provide a better life for their children. (Thus, landowners are an important rentier class in the education debate, along with teachers and publishers).

This leads many parents to face what Elizabeth Warren called “the two income trap.” The bidding war for good schools, along with the breakdown of widespread sexual discrimination, encourages both men and women to work, and use the excess income to buy housing near a good school. This means that if the husband loses work for whatever reason, the wife cannot temporarily increase the family’s income by taking additional part-time work. Further, in the event of a medical emergency in the family, the wife cannot act as a “free” caregiver. In both cases, America’s two-earner encouraged by our bad schools increases the financial risks of families, and thus increases domestic violence, divorce, and economic ruin.

While the low quality of America’s teacher workforce is certainly one reason for this, others exist as well. America’s education management force is low quality as well. Further, peers matter — who a child goes to school with matters quite a lot. Parents (meaning parents who are actually engaged with and concerned for their child’s future) can reasonable expect a school to be better if fewer students from low-income households attend it. Thus, a brutal but effectve way to increase the quality of schools for many parents would be to exclude students from communities that historically are not focused on education. Brown v. Board of Education and other cases have made this policy untenable, however, leading to more low-income parents to be priced out of good schools because they now have economic competition from communities of comparative earning ability but with a broken pipeline to class mobility.

But in either case, the problems remain. And the economic stress bad schools place on parents mean that solutions that require paying teachers more — such as turning teaching into a profession — may be impractical.

How Platform Monopolies Fail

Technology platform tend towards monopoly. Whether physical or virtual, platforms provide a level playing field for other actors to use to their advantage. The predictability of monopolies allows other actors to plan for the future, and the technological stabilization they present make the road ahead a lot less frightening for most involved. Monopolies cannot and do not “charge whatever they want” — they price their goods so that they capture a portion of the value they provide that is still low enough to deter other potential competitors from entering the market.

Markets fail through either lack of empathy or lack of understanding. Lack of empathy occurs when the monopoly is blind to the political concerns of other stakeholders, and they therefore use their power to break the monopoly. For instance, in the United States, the left-of-center turned strongly against the physical sciences after the Vietnam War, at the same time at the right-of-center was agitating against government control. The Bell System, by continuing to fund physics research while relying on government control of rates, thus back unempathetic to other actors, and was broken up.

General Motors was a much more empathetic monopoly. They encouraged the growth of the United Auto Workers, allowing both the capital and labor sides of the organization to strongly influence the Republican and Democratic parties, respectively. GM cleverly overcharged for their products, allowing niche competitors such as Ford and Chrysler to survive (and providing a veneer of competition), while keeping those marginal companies captive through the threat of lower prices. Indeed, GM as an organization was so empathetic that management and labor was bailed out by the Bush and Obama administrations! Unfortunately for GM,the shock of high oil prices lead to a decline nonetheless.

In the US education system, the Teachers Front Organizations operated as a monopoly for nearly a century, until being replaced by the federal-academic complex.The reason was both lack of empathy and an external shock. The lack of empathy was exhibited primarily from the Teachers Front Organizations’ lack of concern with State power or Employer’s seeking workers that can be hired. The external shock was first the sexual integration of the American workplace, followed by globalization.

I imagine that if either of these things had not been there — if the Teachers Front Organizations had not been lacking in empathy, if the workplace had not been integrated, or if globalization had not occured, the Teachers Front Organizations would stil be the platform monopoly in the US educational system. If the workforce had not been integrated, teaching would not have suffered from the lobotomy of low wages, as the sexism discount would have still brought many high-performing women into teaching. Likewise, if globalization had not occured, large employers would not have faced the stress of tring to hire a proportionate fraction of their labor force in the United States while facing a disproportionate incompetent labor force in the form of public school graduates.

The consequences of this failed monopoly are as hard for teachers as the failure of the Bell System or GM where for their stakeholders. The teacher leadership in the United States has left everyone — including teachers — down.

Monopolies do not last forever. And monopolies are not all bad. But the Teachers Front Organizations died as a monopoly because it was bad at its most basic job: survival