Friday, July 6, 2018

Gates and Opportunity Costs

I have had a hard time absorbing the news that Bill Gates blew over a half a billion dollars on his latest experiment on live humans.

Half a billion. $575 million, by most accounts. Not all of that was his own money, and honestly, I don't know if that makes me feel better or worse.

This guy
Gates' big experiment in test-based teacher evaluation was itself evaluated by the Rand folks, who took over 500 pages (so, like, a million dollars a page) to conclude that it probably failed, although maybe not. Because if there's one thing that Gates never, ever does, it's say the words "I was wrong. This didn't work." The closest he comes is some version of "This may not have worked, but if it didn't, it wasn't our fault." And Rand comes through this time as well:

Unfortunately, the evaluation cannot identify the reasons the IP initiative did not achieve its student outcome goals by 2014-2015. It is possible that the reforms are working but we failed to detect their effects because insufficient time has passed for effects to appear. It is also possible that the other schools in the same states we use for comparison purposes adopted similar reforms, limiting our ability to detect effects. However, if the findings of no effect are valid, the results might reflect a lack of successful models on which sites could draw in implementing the levers, problems in making use of teacher-evaluation measures to inform key HR decisions, the influence of state and local context, or insufficient attention to factors other than teacher quality.

So, student test scores didn't go up [insert, for the gazillionth time, my rant about how Big Standardized Test scores are terrible proxies for student achievement] but maybe our ideas were working, just not enough so we could tell yet. Or maybe they are working but everyone else was imitating them so our studied schools didn't stand out from the pack because the pack was already following us, even though there's no evidence we were actually correct. (I will refer you here to my thoughts about "levers").

But weasel-wording aside, by their own measures, by their own standards, the Gates project failed. Which is not really a shocker-- name a single Gates-backed education-game-changing initiative that was a notable success. Fail fail faily fail fail.

For over a half a billion dollars.

When I look at a mess like this, I'm most struck by the opportunity cost.

You know about opportunity cost. When you decide to do A, you give up the chance to do B. Your cost is not just what you paid for A-- it is also the cost of not having done B.

Even when we don't use the words, we know all about opportunity cost in education. We have tightly limited resources, so everything has an opportunity cost. If I decide to spend ten more minutes on dependent clauses, then I will spend ten fewer minutes on something else (goodbye, river-related symbolism in Huck Finn). And of course, every dollar spent in a tight school budget represents an opportunity cost.

There are many ways to think about computing opportunity cost. I like this one: if you're about to spend ten dollars on a super-duper deal, ask yourself what you would do if someone handed you ten dollars.

In this case, we ask-- if someone handed you half a billion dollars to spend on making US schools better, what would you spend it on. Make a list. And then check the list-- is "try to pilot an unproven system of teacher evaluation based on scores from narrow, unproven standardized tests" on your list. Is that the best thing you can think of to spend $575 million education dollars on? Because everything else on your list-- more teachers, more resources for poor schools, better buildings, more materials, broader class offerings, smaller class sizes-- is part of the cost of Bill Gates' little experiment.

And it's not just the money. Ask yourself-- if the school year were suddenly lengthened by forty days, what would you do with the extra time. I'll be you have lots of ideas, and I'll bet the top of the list is not "Give a Big Standardized Test and spend a bunch of days getting ready for it." Everything else on the list-- all the units you could have taught, all the time you could have spent working with students, all the greater depth you could have achieved-- is part of the opportunity cost of the Gates experiment.

And that's before we even get to other costs, like the cost of convincing a bunch of teachers that they're lousy teachers because their students didn't get awesome scores on the BS Tests.

So it's really not enough to say that the Gates experiment was a waste of time and money, because that assumes that we had a bunch of time and money to just throw away. We didn't. We don't. This Gates experiment, just like every other Gates experiment, carried a huge opportunity cost. So many things that we could have done, so much education that we could have accomplished, and we spent all that opportunity on one more pile of Gatesian baloney.

There's opportunity cost in the excuses and weasel-wording that inevitably comes with post-experiment Gatesian summing up. Because there's a chance for Gates to have real insight, to say, "Man, we were just wrong on this, and we were so sure we were right even when people were trying to warn us. So I'm thinking that in the future, I'd better not just barrel ahead fueled by nothing but self-confidence. Maybe before I appoint myself the tsar of education, I should listen to some professionals and be more careful about what I do." But that opportunity is also squandered time after time. Somewhere down the road, we'll find ourselves wasting opportunities yet again.

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