Thursday, May 12, 2016

Better Schools Dialogue Part III: Three Guiding Questions

I'm running a dialogue with Dmitri Mehlhorn in which we are looking for any common ground we might share on the topic of better schools. Here are links to Part I and Part II. I'll be along with my next response shortly, but in the meantime, feel free to speak up in the comments section.

Dear Curmudgucation,   

Thank you for engaging.  In response to my vision for public schools, you and your followers have raised three basic questions: (1) are these schools desirable, (2) are they possible, and (3) how can we get them?   

Are these schools desirable?   

My first post suggested that teachers should be paid more; freed from standardized testing and administrative chores; and allowed to focus on their students. Students should learn from each other and on their own, using Montessori methods and outdoor activities, in learning communities that span different ages and ability levels. They should eat healthy foods. Both content and pedagogy should be personalized to their needs. I cross-posted this vision on other sites (including Medium and Citizen Ed), and received positive feedback from parents and educators.  Given the choice, I’m confident most of America, its teachers, and its students would prefer this vision to the status quo.  

You and your audience raised concerns: that by relying upon mobile computing, this vision elevates technology at the expense of humanity; and that competency-based education (CBE) has led to problems in the status quo.  You are right to push for clarity in these areas, as many have complained about fuzzy definitions of personalized learning.  

That said, it is absurd not to use these new tools. I will give an example to illustrate. When I was in school, I used to bring pockets full of dimes to the library to do research for papers.  Compared with the skills that I needed to compete in the global economy, or become a productive citizen, most of that time was wasted: time struggling to find relevant content; in line at the copy machine; manually using slips of paper to mark pages; leaning over the copy machine; discarding bad copies; and bringing home the remainder.  Out of 100 parents and teachers, I doubt that you could find 5 who would compel their students to use that form of research rather than Google.  As Peter himself noted, “I teach at a one-to-one school and would never turn the clock back.”  If there are a few students who cannot learn at all using technology, then a teacher can spend extra time with those students—perhaps while the other students are doing multiplication drills with tailored game-based learning.  These tools are just that: tools—tools that can help America’s students adapt to the changing world.  

Are these schools possible?   

You worry about technology and economics. You worry that healthy foods are not achievable on local budgets.  You worry that all unnecessary costs have already been cut, which suggests that every current dollar is well spent. You say: A good adaptive, AI-driven engaging personalized education system doesn't exist—and I don't believe it ever will. Certainly not in an economically viable form.  

I’m not entirely sure how to respond to this while maintaining the mutually informative, fact-based tone both of us want in this exchange. A lot of suspicion has built up over the years of these debates.  But, in the spirit of trying to continue the dialog, let’s give it a go.   

Let’s start with what’s impossible.  

Both of my parents are alive today because of medical interventions and a medical model (Kaiser Permanente) that did not even exist at the time of their birth. Short surveys of the past, such as Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, show how rapidly change is accelerating. Books such as The Second Machine Age and The Most Human Human go into considerable fact-based review of how machines today do things that were widely believed, even a few years ago, as “impossible” for machines to ever do. This results from the math of exponential laws, such as the half-century of declining computing costs predicted by Moore’s Law.  In 1996, the government introduced the world’s most powerful supercomputer, the $55 million ASCI Red.  By 2006, the ASCI Red had less computing power than a $500 Sony Playstation.  Today, the voice-enabled search capabilities of Siri plus Google on your iPhone have vastly more power than the Cray supercomputers of the 1980s, and go beyond what most science fiction imagined as recently as the 1990s.  

Computing’s plummeting costs are enabling cost reductions in many other areas. For example, the first full human genome sequence was started in 1990 and took nearly $3 billion and 15 years.  Today, a better genome sequence takes two weeks and less than one thousand dollars.   

General Motors was certain electric cars would not be economically viable, until Tesla proved otherwise.  

Michio Kaku’s book The Physics of the Future gives a reasonable glance into the future based on current technologiesKaku’s vision is much less aggressive than that of other futurists. The short version is that the world tomorrow will likely look as magical to us as flying planes and heart transplants would look to our forebears of a few generations ago.   

Frontline teachers, especially skeptics, may wonder what this has to do with their jobs.  And, indeed, they would not be alone.  Millions of professionals, including lawyers, accountants, chemists, and doctors, expressed similar skepticism in the 1980s and 1990s about the implications of change for their professions.  The path from disruptive change to everyday practice is winding and uncertain.  That said, when change happens, those who have foresight tend to adapt better.  As a business consultant, I spent time in the 1990s with professionals at Eastman Kodak in Rochester, New York, and I have also spent time with professionals from Fujifilm headquartered in Tokyo.  Although both firms were very similar in the 1980s, their different responses to changing technologies led to radically different outcomes; Fujifilm today has roughly 2000x the revenues, and more than 10x the employees, of Kodak. I was part of the executive team of a large law firm in the early 2000s; ongoing change made some lawyers more successful, some less successful, and wiped out some legal jobs entirely.   

This is not just a private sector story. The cities of Pittsburgh and Cleveland have revitalized themselves, while the cities of Detroit and Buffalo have not.  The United States military underwent massive and beneficial changes after Vietnam, radically improving performance while keeping costs flat (and thus radically reducing America’s per-capita costs in national defense), while federal prisons have gotten more expensive and less effective by most measures.  The book The Starfish and the Spider talks about how institutions in various sectors (including the public sector) adapt better or worse to change.   

This broad survey is intended to explain the disconnect when you write: But your overall notion that there are places where we could cut fat out of the costs of school are precious. There isn't a district in the country that hasn't cut costs in every way they can think of.  Your words could be almost a direct quote from many of the folks I have worked with at Kodak, or at law firms, or in public institutions. In 1995, I spent time helping the hundreds of employees headquartered at the Massachusetts Department of Education.  I’ve spoken extensively with Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee, who I know are not your friends but who did in fact run very large school districts in the 2000s.  The idea that these organizations had “cut costs in every way you can think of” is simply not true. They had only cut the wrong costs.  They were still leaking money out of huge holes by paying for the wrong things.   

Change is not easy.  Building new institutions is hard.  The exact path is never clear.  But the radical future I described is possible, and indeed likely to come into existence somewhere.  My hope is that it comes into existence for public school students in the United States, sooner rather than later, rather than only for the children of the rich or in other countries.   

How can we get these desirable schools?   

You think that I accuse skeptics of “just being stubborn,” that I fail to properly value the experience of classroom teachers, and that I want to hand over control over schools’ purse strings to “unelected guys in some boardroom.”  This combination of statements exemplifies the problem but perhaps also offers a potential solution.   

As I’ve explained in this thread and in responses to your commenters, I do not claim to be an experienced classroom teacher with expertise in pedagogy or curriculum.  I agree that such voices are vital in building future classrooms. I like the idea of teacher-led schools, as the NEA often celebratesFurther, I agree that purse strings should be held only by the public sector: elected officials should decide where money goes and under what conditions, and whether the money has been well spent.   

That said, the transformation of a vast enterprise requires many different kinds of expertise.  School policy and administration require input from many sources, not only that of frontline teachers. Technological disruption and budget reforms involve complexity and uncertainty. Just as pedagogical and curricular expertise requires time in classrooms, expertise in radical bureaucratic reform requires time running large bureaucracies (especially school systems) and/or observing massive disruption (especially from the point of view of places like Silicon Valley).  You and many of your readers may instinctively reject the idea that these kinds of “boardroom perspectives” have anything to add to debates about school policy.  Indeed, heavily subsidized arguments from folks like Mercedes Schneider [I will save you the trouble of clicking the links-- there is nothing there to support the implication that Mercedes Schneider is heavily subsidized by anybody] go into great detail about the evils of people who have such perspective.  But just as a classroom is a complicated mix of individual students, such that teaching requires many years to obtain expertise, a school system is a complicated mix of many inputs, and systems-management perspectives are relevant.   

So who should be involved in making decisions, and driving change? If public funds are intended for the benefit of students, then students must be well served.  Since students, especially younger students, have little ability to vouch for that, we must empower their proxies. That means, most prominently, parents and elected officials.  Other crucial voices include professional employees such as teachers and counselors, as well as college admissions officers, employers, journalists, and nonprofits. To be clear, venture capitalists themselves should have relatively little public voice.  Venture capitalists can provide critical funding to new ideas.  They do not, and cannot, provide revenue.  Capital markets are not the same thing as revenue sources. On the other hand, school boards are also highly imperfect. A local community school board could, conceptually, be a proxy for students, but the evidence suggests that such boards (a) have geographic boundaries and electoral timing that suppress turnout and thus reduce democratic control, and (b) control financial resources in a way that exacerbates economic inequality.  

All of this gets back to the original argument. If we want change, parents and other actors need to engage thoughtfully, expect extraordinary results, and work together.  We can do this.   


  1. How old were you when you brought your "pockets full of dimes" to the library? I'm guessing not much earlier than high school. If all we're talking about is using tech for research purposes at the older grades, I don't think you'll get much argument. In fact, if you were to visit public schools, you'd actually find a significant amount of that happening.

    But younger children need little if any tech - their "research" doesn't involve dimes or copy machines nor can such research be easily switched over to Google. They need hands-on experiential, project based learning. I don't know of any good apps for finding bugs in the grass or building with blocks.

    1. Yes, you totally beat me to it. We don't give calculators first and teach them math later; similarly, we want them to experience as much real life BEFORE (or without) tech as possible. Sure, it's easier to look up stuff at the library (and from home!) than it ever was to go to the library and physically use the card catalog, and it *may* be less expensive (I'd love for someone to do a study on this!) to individually print stuff out at home than to have it happen at school on a copy machine. Elementary-schoolers for sure don't need to be doing anything that would have required stuffing their pockets full of dimes for a copy machine unless it's something they WANT to do.

      That brings me to your "using Montessori methods" quote, which in an of itself suggests first and foremost that you want children to do the work themselves, "longhand" as it were, to experience the physical act and sensory inputs that Montessori methods embody. This doesn't happen with tablets, and not even with keyboarding (where there's at least a modicum of muscle memory involved).

      Finally, your examples of cities and industries that have used tech to their advantage have one major difference from what happens in truly engaging classrooms: they don't deal with individual humans, with their differences, with their strengths and unique personalities, but with collectives (cities) or inanimate products (factories/industry). Do I REALLY need to link to The Blueberry Story for you? (I shouldn't but I will: )

      I had something else I was going to address but this window is tiny and I have a concert this evening to get ready for, supper to get ready for the kids, all that Adulting stuff to do starting in 10 minutes, so I'll get back to it.

    2. Isn't it interesting the some of the most ardent Waldorf supporters are themselves Silicon Valley tech gurus? So people who earn big bucks doing tech for a living don't want their kids learning/using tech. Things that make you go hmmm....

  2. Interesting that the word "Montessori" is getting thrown out there along with "mobile computing." These two things do NOT go together- Montessori is very anti-tech, for better or worse.

  3. I have a question as a parent.
    I sympathize with the fact that systematic change is hard. Likely, creative disruption is a useful/necessary tool to transform a system. But when we talk about education, we are not talking about ONLY a system. We are talking about childten. Children who only have one 13 year window to acquire a K-12 education. What do we say to the children who have spent the majority, or even entirety, of that precious, non-recoverable window in chaotic, constantly disrupted schools? They are collateral damage.
    If systematic change is hard, and it is, if we don't know what will or won't work, (which is debatable- there are mountains of research that go ignored regarding the developmental realities of children) why is it ok to perform these experiments on a mass scale vs. engaging in small, well-researched pilot projects first?

    On a mass scale....
    Why is it ok to adopt standards sight unseen?
    Why is it ok to administer non-piloted opaque tests and use them to measure really important things? Things like grades... That go on transcripts..that lead to a student's ability (or not) to get accepted into college.

    On a mass scale...
    Why is it ok to test out on kids the effects of 2-year stint TFA teachers ? Why is it ok to test out on kids weather or not a volunteer with 5 weeks of training can
    be an effective teacher?
    Why is it ok to make coming of age in this particular decade mean losing your chance to learn to a chaotic, unpredictable, ever-changing creatively disprupted education system?
    Is it ok because it may serve the next generation?
    Is this generation expendable?

  4. @Frustrated mom.....It's OK because the people pushing this crap are making money off the backs of our children. It's OK because it's "just" tax dollars taken from the middle income sector. It's OK because who's watching anyway as long as the kids go someplace to sit for 6-8 hrs a day.

    It's OK that you're frustrated....because I am too....and so are many others. There's just so much wrong that it's hard to figure out where to begin. We have let this happen over the past 10-15 years and now it's hard to turn it around and to find a place to start. I've started by REFUSING the tests and next year I may decide to homeschool a middle schooler and one entering HS. I feel the need to save my children.

  5. I would like to know what "wrong things" the school districts Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee were in charge of were still spending money on, and what "right things" they then spent money on that were successful in improving the learning process.

    I would say that young children's proxies in looking out for their well-being would be parents, teachers, and counselors. Elected state officials have not been doing a good job anywhere that I can see. I see no credible reason why Silicon Valley board members, journalists, or nonprofits should have any particular say at all in education policy.

  6. Hmmm....

  7. Your examples of businesses that were disrupted by innovative technology and which lost their customer base, so had to adapt or die, is not applicable to education. Education is not a profit-making industry. The profit motive is not why it exists. It exists to serve everyone so that we have a better society.

    Business and technology do not exist to make society a better place. Sometimes technology can transform society for the better, but that is a secondary effect. The best kind of business for society is one that sees a real need and meets it. Another kind tries to create an artificial desire for something that is not necessary.

    Technology done right can certainly enhance learning. Videogames are a good example. Games can be a good way to practice skills, and especially motivating to practice skills that would otherwise be tedious. My son learned his addition and subtraction facts with a videogame I got him called Math Blaster. Of course, games don't have to be video-based. Even at the high school level teachers use games, for example adaptations of Jeopardy, as one way to practice content. But videogames can be useful for students who need extra practice.

    My son also learned a lot about Chinese history during the time of the Three Kingdoms by playing a game called, I think, Warcraft. More videogames should actually teach you things, the same way I learn things from the background of a good novel, and these and more specifically educational videogames should be in libraries. But it can't serve as the only way to learn, and there are other types of learning and skills that need to be acquired and practiced in different ways. It all depends on what's appropriate for the concept, skills, and content being taught, and on the specific children being taught, and that can only be determined by a professional well-versed in cognitive psychology and familiarity with the specific child.

  8. (Cont.) One concept that can be taken from business is that the person being served is "always right". Schools are often not responsive enough to parental concerns; sometimes even secretaries are rude to and impatient with parents. This is partly because of the difficulty parents have with work scheduling that makes it hard for them to confer during school hours, and the lack of face-to-face time between parents and teachers that would build familiarity and trust, but it is also a lack of leadership and professionalism. Email can be a big help in communication -- as long as the parent has easy access to it, which is not always true in poor communities. Having the school be a community center for many services would help, as would having more counselors.

    Of course this doesn't mean that the parent is necessarily "always right", or that the principal should kow-tow to them; but it's imperative that any concerns the parent has be acknowledged and addressed. If it can't be addressed, the reasons why have to be very clear to the parent. Parents should not be made to feel inferior; they have to feel they're being treated as a respected partner. It shouldn't be necessary for the school to have to "compete" with other schools to do this; it should just be a matter of course.

    Schools can be transformed in organization and policy by making them more community-centered and teacher-led. Schools need to be a stable part of the community, not disruptive. Any technology used needs to have a "reason for being" that makes sense to the teacher using it. It should make things easier and simpler for the teacher, not more complicated and time-consuming. Technology is a tool, but only a tool, one of many, and as such cannot be transformative to the learning process; only knowledge of cognitive psychology can be transformative to the learning process.

  9. I absolutely disregard ANY argument that uses examples of other industries as analogies to education or other industries to different industries.

    A bean counter ran GM into the ground during the Reagan Admin.

    Maytag was very high quality, high value until a F'ing idiot CEO from Coca-Cola started to run it.

    You want Bill Gates coaching the Spurs?

    You want Dmitri teaching my physics classes? (Or better still, google 'joe stieve'...a frikkin' jimi hendrix of HS physics teaching.)

    Last public school principle I worked under (phys ed, coaching background) made the same arguments 6 yrs ago. Wanna know how many of the 15 member science dept remained after 2 years? 3!!! This was a great dept in a (theoretically) highly competitive school district in the Columbia SC area. 12 of us quickly found better situations either in ED or industry.

    My father had a saying that I sometimes obey: "If you can't say anything nice, say it anyway."

    So I'll say it: I can do Dmitri's job better than he can do mine. AFA I'm concerned he is an idiot.

  10. As someone who began teaching in MA in 1975 (Boston, second year of school desegregation), I'd love to know what exactly Dmitri did at the MA state dep't of ed, as well as why he was qualified to do it.

    We had our first "ed reform" in MA in 1993. Most of that came at the expense, literally and figuratively, of teachers. Those of us who had been permanently certified as teachers were striped of our lifetime licenses and made to renew our certificates at 5 year intervals, mainly by paying to take grad level courses. Teachers new to the profession had to get a masters within their first 5 years - and pay for it out of their own pockets - there are no cheap grad programs in MA.

    Actual classroom teachers had been involved in the writing of standards - I did some for World Languages - in various subject areas, not just math and ELA. The work was jettisoned. The state board was politicized. Appointees were annointed by the governor and career educators could not make themselves heard at the state level. The new cabal running the show were early adopters of business approaches to schooling, not educators. The statewide MCAS was instituted, and became a graduation requirement, harming ELL and SWD students in the process. Realtors began touting MCAS scores as part of their sales pitch and urban schools began to be tagged as "failures" ripe for chartering.

    And Dmitri says he was there.

  11. I find the medical example of Kaiser Permanente being a great model for medicine to be interesting, as that wasn't my experience with them at all. In any case, going forward with a medical example, when my elderly dad broke his shoulder, he needed an actual human being with a particular set of skills to set his bones & another actual human being to assist him with physical therapy. Modern technology was available to help these good people do their jobs, but the technology was secondary to the humans. That sort of example is far closer to educating children than what happened to Kodak & Fuji. Education is for young humans, and must be guided by older humans with particular skills. Everything else is secondary to making that happen.