Friday, March 20, 2015

Whitney Tilson Is Better Than You

When we're talking about the kind of hedge-fund managing, faux-Democrat, rich fat cat, anti-public ed reformsters who are driving much of the modern ed reform agenda, we're talking about guys like Whitney Tilson.

The Tilson Story

Tilson is a walking Great Story-- his parents are educators who met while serving in the Peace Corps. Tilson's father earned a doctorate in education at Stanford, which adds the story-worthy detail that young Whitney was a participant in Stanford's famous marshmallow experiment. That's an apt biographical detail. The original interpretation of the experiment was essentially that some children are better than others because they have the right character traits. More recent follow-up research suggests that a bigger lesson is that it's a hell of a lot easier to show desired character traits when you live in a stable environment.

Tilson became a big name in the world of value investing, and he has used his gabillions to fuel the charter school world. He's a big backer of KIPP, TFA and DFER. He is nominally a liberal Democrat, but he has no love for teachers and some pretty clear dislike for their unions.

He recently surfaced in an article by The Nation about how the billionaire boys club is remaking the New York City Schools in their own chartery profit-generating image. Tilson, in his weekly-ish ed reform newsletter, dismissed the article as "a silly hatchet job" and told his own version of how a bunch of Very Rich White Guys have commandeered the biggest apple of them all.

The true story here is very simple and the opposite of sinister – it’s inspiring to me: a number of very successful New Yorkers – believing in the power of education and that every kid deserves a fair shot at the American dream, and disgusted with an educational system that does just the opposite, in which the color of your skin and your zip code pretty much determine the quality of public school a kid gets, an unjust reality that goes on, year in and year out, not because the system is broken, but because it operates just the way it’s supposed to, to serve the economic interests of the adults in the system and the political interests of the gutless weasel politicians who kowtow to them – decided to donate millions of dollars, despite having absolutely nothing to gain personally, to create a counter-weight to the status quo, in which the unions historically said “Jump!” and the governor and legislature would respond, “How high?!”

Tilson likes to characterize himself as a scrappy underdog.

I’m very proud to say that we’ve been enormously successful. Despite being outmanned, outspent, and outgunned 100:1, a small group of incredible people – in part the funders, but more importantly the people on the ground – have turned the tables on the entrenched powers, in part by, yes, finding and strongly supporting a courageous ally in Gov. Cuomo. 

I am not sure in which alternate reality these billionaires have been outspent or outgunned, but it is a standard part of the reformster narrative that they are heroic fighters, fearlessly taking on entrenched and powerful forces who are bent on imprisoning students everywhere in dark dungeons of desperation and failure.

It's not about the greed

I have long believed that those who explain reformster motivation by resorting to greed are likely wrong. From techno-system guys like Gates to value investors like Tilson, there's something else working. Here's a quote from that same Tilson letter

We are winning this titanic struggle (albeit in a three-steps-forward-two-steps-back way), not because we’re all-powerful billionaires, but because, to quote MLK, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

Or this quote from Sir Michael Barber, head of Pearson, commenting on the challenge of remaking education into a global digitized system:

Be that as it may, the aspiration to meet these challenges is right

Or the Lyndsay Layton interview with Bill Gates, in which Gates is truly thrown by the mere suggestion that he's in this for the bucks. 

These are all people who believe they are serving a higher moral purpose, that they personally understand how the world should be reshaped in a way that other people simply don't. And they have an obligation to circumvent democratic institutions, traditional systems and the disagreeing humans who stand in their way because they know better.

They are armed with vast fortunes and wide-ranging connections, and just like the robber barons before them, they sense that these powers are not the result of random good fortune, but the validation and proof that they really are better than other people, that they have some better, wiser grasp of the world and how it does, and should, work. They do not necessarily revel in the power; in fact, they often use the language of obligation-- it's a thing they have to do. It's, you know, a burden that this rich white guys must pick up.

Will their reforms bring them more money and power? Sure. But that's not the goal-- it's just the proof that they were right. After all, if they weren't smart and strong and better than the average person, they wouldn't be so rich and powerful.

Now, does greed help drive the ed reform engines? Certainly. But that's because once these super-powered elite form their vision of how to remake the world, there is a ton of money to be made by helping them do it, and so a whole swarm of people interested in that money travel in their wake. Philosophically, it really does mirror the symbiosis of 19th century European colonialism. Nobody could sell conquering Africa as baldfaced conquest and exploitation-- but once that colonization was sold as a way to give lesser people the benefits of superior European culture, knowledge, worldview, pants, and religion, the profiteers could adopt the proper language and spread over the continent like locusts.

In the "meritocratic" universe, there are The Right Sort of People and The Wrong Sort of People. The Betters are successful and wise, and this is evident in their success and wealth and innate superior character. They should run things. The Wrong Sort of People need accountability to keep them in line, to guide them to do the correct thing (you will note that we never call for accountability for the Betters-- they don't need it, and their success proves they don't need it).

So what's does Tilson really think?

Tilson's education views seem to have coalesced fairly early in the current ed reform cycle; in 2009 he gave a presentation in DC that was his attempt to create An Inconvenient Truth for the education biz. "A Right Denied" exists as a website, a set of power point slides, and a documentary. I worked my way through the slide show, which I think is an excellent summary (although, at 292 slides, not a very brief one) of the DFER corporate Democrat point of view.

The problem

Tilson starts by documenting the correlation between education and employment, earnings, and long-term health. I don't think many people dispute the correlation-- the argument is about what it means. The DFER/Duncan position is that education is the cause of everything else. I think it's far more likely that lower educational results come from the same place as the other issues-- poverty.

Tilson also notes that scores on some tests have stagnated, and there's lots to argue about there (can you really compare SAT results when the population taking the test has been steadily changing as we try to convince every student that she must go to college), as well as the question of what standardized tests actually measure. But it is a critical element of the DFER view that schools must be accountable, by which they mean the Help must show their Betters what they are up to.

Tilson also wants us to know that we've been spending more and more on education (he does not address the question of "on what," and consider issues such as increased mandates for more special ed teachers in schools). That's okay-- his basic point is clear. We've been spending tons of money on education and not getting bang for our buck.

Tilson knows why-- three reasons:

1) Teacher quality has been falling rapidly over the past few decades.

2) Our school systems have become more dysfunctional, bureaucratic, and unaccountable.

3) As a nation, we have been so rich for so long that we have become lazy and complacent. Our youth are spending more time watching tv, listening to iPods, playing video games.

Tilson illustrates this with two photos-- one showing neat, well-dressed Chinese youngsters politely lined up, and the other an unruly crowd of shirtless frat boys. Kids these days! He then shows some data to support his last point. Points 1 and 2 get no supporting evidence at all right now.

Some critical gaps

Gap #1. We don't send enough students to college, and too few of those finish. No idea why that completion rate is low. It would be interesting to see the numbers on students who drop out of college because they can't afford to finish it.

Gap #2. The achievement gap, by race and poverty. Starting in kindergarten and through college (this is where he shows some numbers about college affordability). But the bottom line here is that "the color of your skin and your zip code are almost entirely determinative of the quality of public education this nation provides. This is deeply, profoundly wrong." I have no beef with Tilson on this point.

The solutions

Here's where it just gets very weird, random, and profoundly intellectually sloppy.

There are too many systems "dominated by the Three Pillars of Mediocrity." Quick-- before you scroll down, can you think of three policies that make it hard to improve poor schools. Did you guess systemic underfunding, lack of support, or absence of fundamental infrastructure and resources? Incorrect. It's those damn teachers. They have tenure, a pay scale, and seniority.

Tilson says if you want to fix any broken system (because how different could schools be from any other system), you take these four steps:
           1) Adopt the right strategy and tactics
           2) Hire and train great leaders and then empower them
           3) Measure results
           4) Hold people accountable

A patronizing patrician approach is embedded here, too. Note that there is no step for consulting with the people who are already in the system. Our assumption, once again, is that some people are better than others, and you need to put those who are better in charge.

Tilson holds up Florida as an example of this type of system overhaul. And it's here that we hit a point that the Nation article really did get wrong. They accused Tilson of not wanting to spend any money on schools, but in slide #90, he makes it clear that spending more money is not a solution-- unless the money is tied to reforms. It's the fetal form of the reformster adage "Throwing money at public schools is wasteful, but throwing money at charters and test publishers is awesome."

Of course, you might not be able to reform the system, in which case you need to replace it, and here come a slew of slides about the miraculous miracle that is New Orleans, featuring the usual selective slices of data (incidentally, we also get the prediction that by 2016 there will be almost no failing schools in NOLA. So that's a win).

And now for a word...

Next up-- an advertisement for charters, especially the KIPP system for which Tilson sits on the board.

Those damn teachers

Did you know that teachers are the most important in-school factor in student achievement (aka test scores)? Well, here come a bunch of pull quotes from the infamous (and unsupportable) Chetty study to tell you so. And we'll throw in some Eric Hanushek baloney about firing our way to excellence as well.

Tilson boils the teacher problem down to two factors-- teacher quality has been declining for decades, and talent is unfairly distributed.

So here we are back at one of the fundamental assumptions of the DFER/Duncan worldview-- some people are just better than others, and that betterness reveals itself in All the Right Places. They will be better at school, they will get better jobs, they will do better on standardized tests, and ultimately they will make more money. So when we look for these markers, we aren't really measuring anything in particular-- we're just looking for the markers of success that signal one of the Chosen Few (and yes-- astute readers will note that modern corporate meritocrats have a great deal in common with our Puritan forebears).

So-- we "know" that we aren't getting the Right People into teaching because they don't mostly graduate at the top of their class or get the best SAT scores. Meanwhile, the schools of education lack accountability-- and in the meritocratic view of the world, accountability is what we need in order to make the Lesser Humans behave properly.

Implicit in this world view is that being a Better or a Lesser is fairly hard to change. It's wired in, like good breeding. That's why Lessers need "accountability," because only carrots and sticks (and mostly sticks) will get them to overcome their fundamental Lesser nature. This is also the rationale behind testing for students (no fourth grade for you until you pass this reading test, kid)-- only by strong actions can we force them to overcome their inherently lesser natures.

In the meantime, we need to sort out the Right Sort of People from the Wrong Sort of People in teaching and fire our way to excellence (by removing the Wrong Sort of People). This is why DFER types love Teach for America-- it selects teachers by using the markers of true excellence (wealth, good grades, the Right Schools) so that The Right Sort of People will be put in the classroom. TFA even systematically addresses one of the inherent contradictions of the DFER view-- if you really are the Right Kind of Person, you'll be doing something more successful and wealth-making than merely being a teacher, so it's okay if you only do it for a while.

Unfair distribution is more of the same. We know that the Bad Teachers are ending up in poor schools because none of the markers of Being Better are there. No high tests scores, degrees from the Right Sort of School.

And behind it all-- the damn unions, which are composed of the Wrong Sort of Person and try to protect the Wrong Sort of Person from having to be accountable to their Betters.

Goofus and Gallant

Tilson finishes with some action items, some things that you should or should not do.

You should join DFER. Ask questions of the ignorant, gutless politicians (clearly the Wrong Sort of People who have been elected by the Wrong Sort of People-- stupid democracy, anyway).

Don't allow reform opponents to define the debate (I have to tell you-- viewing myself through Tilson's eyes, I am a freaking giant). Also, don't think advocacy is cheap.

And stay positive, and don't get lost in fantasy:

It's nice to fantasize about an 18-day, Egypt-style revolution that throws out the old order, that's not going to happen. The system is much too big, too entrenched, and too decentralized to fix quickly.

Is it really nice to fantasize about public education being completely removed in a violent revolution? Interesting thought, that.

Here's one thing that is not on Tilson's to-do list-- empower the people who actually live in poor and minority neighborhoods by getting systemic barriers out of their way so that they can better have a voice in their own governance and local education. In fact, even listening to those voices is not on the list. 

Tilson and the Worst Kind of Democrat Caricature 

So what's the real problem? The Wrong Sort of People are in charge, and Kids These Days have turned into miserable slackers. Poor and minority students are being abandoned in the mess that comes from letting The Wrong Sort of People be in charge. We need to put the Right Sort of People in charge through any means possible, so that they can take care of the Lesser Folks who need their largesse and assistance. Having things like a Race to the Top make sense because we can then separate out the Right Kind of People from the Wrong Kind of People. The Betters will raise expectations, hold peoples' feet to the fire, and get a warm glow of satisfaction from knowing that they made life better for people who were, of course, incapable of making life better for themselves. And in doing so, they will be acting as a force for good and justice and truth in the universe (and they will be richly rewarded because virtue always leads to great rewards).

Yes, this all dovetails beautifully with the goals and aims of profiteers, the folks who just want a chance to crack open the golden egg of education and feed on the giant omelet of money that can be made from it. But when you separate the DFER-style agenda from the profiteering, you can see the kind of paternalistic elitist we-know-better-than-you cartoon Democrat that Tea Partiers and other hard-right folks deeply hate.

This is what you get when you cross real needs, real issues and real concerns (like the need to provide better schooling to poor and minority students in this country) with a particular wacky worldview that is more old-world aristocratic than American. But I'll remind you that Tilson's slides are from 2009, and they contain pretty much every single talking point we've heard from the current administration since Race to the Top was launched. While I may have Whitney Tilson outnumbered and outgunned, I'm just a high school English teacher with a blog and he's an investment whiz with the ear of world leaders. I'm pretty sure I don't represent a very big threat to him, but without ever having met me or knowing who I am, he's ready to kick my ass.


  1. Very insightful. The new feudal system. "Noblesse oblige."

  2. I just read on HuffPost that there's a new global teaching award. The recipient is a Maine teacher who's been teaching for 42 years and founded a school, The Center for Teaching and Learning. She said she wouldn't encourage young people to be going into teaching now: "Public school teachers are so constrained right now by the Common Core Standards and the tests that are developed to monitor what teachers are doing with them. It's a movement that's turned teachers into technicians, not reflective practitioners."

    "If you're a creative, smart young person," she continued, "I don't think this is the time to go into teaching."

  3. If this is not the time to be a teacher in a school, then this is the time to teach the Betters about the worth of The Help. Sometimes, such as this time, the owners must be reminded of the value of the goose that lays the golden eggs.

  4. Of course, Whitney bills himself as a brilliant analyst of the market prior to his work in education "reform"... and cites this as a reason for to be trusted as an expert in the latter.

    Oh, you don't believe that? Check out Tilson keen grasp of the tech market and his uncanny ability to predict market success:

    - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
    WHITNEY TILSON (2004):

    "(Some envision) Google with the same market cap of McDonald's (a stock I own)?! HA! I believe that it is virtually certain that Google's stock will be highly disappointing to investors foolish enough to participate in its overhyped offering -- you can hold me to that."
    - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

    Note: Since then (as of 10/18/13) Google has gone on to give its investors over a 1050% return.

    Here's the article where Tilson said this... still available on the net:

    Has anyone actually "held him to" his prediction? Can anyone?

  5. The concentration of wealth for a tiny elite is the root of the problem. They have unlimited resources to inflict their fantasies of "reform" on the world no matter how misguided and misinformed.

  6. Peter, you don't just outnumber and outgun guys like Tilson, you out-think them. You need to challenge these "thought-leaders" to a Think-Off. My money is on you to win any day.

  7. Rambling thoughts on what else is wrong (or even "not even wrong") with Tilson's comments:

    1. Maybe Tilson sees himself as wholly philanthropic in the sense that he won't get appreciably richer on this but his funds and investors will if he utilizes the tools we've learned about. And more importantly: he is the classic case of seeing everything as a nail. He may not desire more money, but he is quite vested in the notion that when the market makes people money that means it is working not only efficiently but morally, and that is a dangerous trap in public education. Tilson is used to looking and evaluating things based on metrics like price/earnings ratios, but in education, very often you HAVE to spend more, a LOT more, to get less because of the challenges of the populations you are working with. He gets all caught up in measurable outcomes for charters without bothering to look at fundamentals to see how they are like Enron.

    So Tilson may be right that zip codes should not have such influence on educational outcomes but he doesn't want to get remotely close to what would actually address it: breaking down income segregation with a renewed commitment to mixed income housing development and a massive influx of resources into schools with high poverty populations because educating a child is not like producing consumer electronics.

    2. His nasty tripe about it being all about the "adults" and the politicians who kowtow, as if the majority of teachers are moochers on the public dime. Look, buster, there are 3 million teachers out there. Do you think it is possible to run any system of employment for that many people and have no aspect of it be about the people busting their humps? Do you look at hospitals and see nothing but a system that is all about the health care providers?

    All of these complaints about teachers and unions come down to a fundamental belief that no employee anywhere should be secure in a job -- that the market is the only force capable of determining the value of labor and that fear of job loss keeps workers productive. It never occurs to someone like Tilson that the best teachers HAVE to be able to be adversarial with management in a way that would get them fired from Tilson's kind of operation. But we all know that in order to be good at this you need the ability to push back on boneheaded ideas that originate far outside of your specific context and you need considerable autonomy.

    3. Teacher Quality: Bullshit. There is not one indicator that he can point to that shows we have a drastic decline in teacher quality. Not one. Requirements and gate keeping have gone up in every decade since the 1970s, and his markers are not actual indicators of who is or is not going to be a great teacher or even a good teacher. He is again obsessed with numeric markers that would mean college professors would enjoy reputations as the best teachers around. Right.

    School quality as measured by progress in NAEP has been fairly constant and rising just a bit since initial big gains when we were actively integrating schools. Looking at the negative trends of income segregation and rising inequality, the fact that NAEP measures have been fairly constant is no indication of any slump in teacher quality -- in fact, teacher quality is probably better considering we've held ground under much worse conditions than previous decades.

    Nor is it remotely true that we need many more college graduates -- unless your goal is to deflate the value of a college degree so that college educated workers are cheap to hire and easy to replace. College wages are flat -- and the college wage benefit only remains because wages for people without degrees are crashing. If Tilson thinks that we need MORE BAs at this moment in history, then I question whether or not such a titan of finance understands basic labor economics.

    1. Well said. Market based morals lead to some interesting conclusions about how to organize and manage certain fundamental human services.

  8. My 2009 take on Whitney Tilson.

    1. Great piece. Highly recommended to anyone reading through the comments here.