Monday, December 1, 2014

Forbes Fab Five By Five (Part I)

The philanthropic fiduciary phenoms at Forbes brought together some eduwhizes to play Pimp My Ride with the US education system. They started with the basic questions-- How much money would it take for a complete refurbishing of the US education system, what would the priorities for such a rebuild be, and how much benefit would accrue from such a redo?

They followed this unicorn-fueled analysis with a roundtable of Educational Leaders; they put that discussion in a separate article, and I'm going to do the same. Part I will look just at their master plan, because it's kind of interesting when the Masters of the Universe stop with the soft lights and champagne and Johnny Mathis records and just say straight out what they want to do.

So, first-- let's set our standards really, really low:

We set out to determine the costs and benefits of taking U.S. schoolkids from their middling global rankings to top five in the world, as measured by math scores and rates for high school graduation, college entry and four-year college completion.

That's it. Math scores, grad rates, and college success. Imagine what our education system would look like if those-- and nothing else-- became the goal of US schools. (Spoiler alert-- it wouldn't look much like an actual education system.)

But while our standards may be low, the stakes are really, really high:

The resulting numbers were big. Really big. The investment required to implement all five would run somewhere in the neighborhood of $6.2 trillion, spread over 20 years. Or $310 billion a year in today’s dollars. And the payoff, as calculated by factoring in all those additional, better-skilled high school and college graduates on our national GDP? Almost $225 trillion, spread over an 80-year time horizon, which incorporates an entire generation’s professional achievement.

Where did those numbers come from? But in case you wonder, the cost analysis was overseen by David Steiner, the dean of Hunter College’s School of Education and New York State’s former education commissioner, and Ashley Berner, who works there, too, I guess? They consulted experts in the field (top experts! spared no expense!) For the benefits side of the projection, they used "a formula based on complex modeling by Stanford’s Eric Hanushek that correlates the effect each policy would have on math scores to long-term economic performance and structural economic changes." Then all the numbers were written in unicorn blood on the wings of a gryphon who flew to Narnia and had the figures processed by an army of Jabberwockies. Let's just say that Forbes "projects" that it would cost A Lot of Money, but pay off in Even More Money.

The article also notes that the researchers made many assumptions and skipped over others (e.g. they assumed only recruiting great teachers and not firing crappy ones). So, unicorn blood taken only from unicorns who are left-handed and speak esperanto.

This giant educational pimpage requires, in Forbes' opinion, five major initiatives. Do these, and the US will have oodles of students graduating from our math academies to go finish college. Here we go! And each one comes with a few words from-- well, sponsors? interested rich guys?

Teacher Efficacy

We need to attract the best and the brightest to teaching. We will do it by throwing money at them. That's the plan, backed up by a McKinsey study that estimates (wait-- can you do that? Because I'm thinking scientists could have a lot more fun doing studies if they could just estimate their findings instead of having to find facts and stuff) that a 50% salary increase would result in teachers coming from the top third of college grads (which would be good, because everybody knows that doing well in college and being able to teach in a classroom are exactly the same skill sets).

Each of these categories also comes with numbers about cost and returns and I'm not going to report them because, unicorn's blood. Suffice it to say that each would supposedly cost an incredible amount of money but would return a ridiculously incredible amount of money. Seriously-- is this how rich guys convince other rich guys to invest money, because I'm suddenly feeling even less confident about the underpinnings of our economy.

Our commenter is Larry Robbins, a hedge fund billionaire who wants his kids to have good teachers and thinks the "blunt instrument" of paying everyone more would be swell. Though he also proposes the really interesting idea of exempting top teachers from income tax. Says Robbins, "That would cost less than our subsidies to agriculture, excluding food stamps. It would cost one-third of that which we are spending on wars. Should there not be a war for teachers?"

Universal Pre-K

Get pre-K for every kid in the country. But we need to do more than just add pre-K to schools. For some reason, we'd also need to mess with teacher observation, and of course connecting to the curricular requirements of kindergarten. Because play is for babies. No, seriously. Only infants should be allowed to play.

Comments from J. B. Pritzker, who inherited his billions and who runs Pritzker Children's Initiative and Pritzker Consortium on Early Childhood Development (because philanthropy needs good branding). His comments can be summarized as, "I do not understand the difference between correlation and causation. If a four year old learns more words, he'll stop being poor." Did I mention that Pritzker inherited his money?

School Leadership

Empower principals. Attract higher-level talent by raising salaries 26% (seriously, that's the number, because, you know, 25% wouldn't be enough and 27% would be overkill). "Reform" state laws so that principals have the powers of business leaders and can hire and fire and cook books and sacrifice long-term success for short-term flash. Create principal-training academies, presumably where they can be taught cool business management stuff and not have their heads filled with education nonsense. And not that Forbes loves them some business sense or anything, but they predict a ROI of 5,551x the original investment.

There does not seem to be any question of how giving a principal Icahn-like power might affect that whole recruitment thing. Our guest commenter is John Fisher, who inherited his money and used it to buy the Oakland A's. His educational involvement is a mess of charter baloney. Fun fact about Fisher: the money he inherited was money his father made running the Gap. KIPP founders approached him and said, "It's all about replicating leaders like us," and that sounded about right to the guy who made his millions creating a chain devoted to fashion excellence and quality, so now the Fisher Foundation is a big KIPP financial partner. All of this is so interesting that I completely forgot to pay any attention to anything Fisher has to say about education.

Blended Learning

This is "arming students with computers and delivering rote lessons in part through digital media, personalized and optimized to individual needs and pace, allowing teachers more value-added." Which is great because I end every day thinking, damn, if only I had had more value-added today. I wish it came in a can, like V-8.

This will require broadband everywhere, as well as coaching schools and teachers on how to implement lesson plan B when the technology fails once again integrate technology in lessons, because computers are magical.

Fred Wilson is a venture capital guy who thinks that blended learning will kill one size fits all learning and give us personalized teaching for each and every kid. And he thinks the FCC E-rate program will totally pay for all this. I hope he does a bit more due diligence when he's managing his venture capital fund.

Common Core/College Readiness

Wonder how CCSS is still hanging in there? One likely answer is that rich guys just love it. "While Common Core has critics on both extremes of the political spectrum, those in the sensible center rightly view high national standards, coupled with tools to achieve success, as a no-brainer." This is unintentionally hilarious to me because I do indeed believe that Common Core makes the most sense if you do in fact have no brain. The Forbes Factoid  Squad projects that it will cost $185.4 billion to make CCSS fully happen, but will yield returns of $27.9 trillion. Do you suppose that rich guys smoke really, really good drugs. Laced with unicorn blood?

Michael Bloomberg's daughter Emma (another inheritance billionaire) offers this observation:  

Essentially, Common Core is bringing our education system in line with the way the world works today standards intended to help address America’s lagging international tech scores, our inability to produce college and career-ready graduates and the growing inequality in educational opportunity, not just among socioeconomic classes but among states.

It's awesome in its almost complete lack of facts, since CCSS doesn't address most of these things, isn't aligned to anything else in the world, and won't fix some of these problems because they don't exist. But if you get in trouble supporting the Core, don't worry, because Ms. Bloomberg makes a promise:

We ask our elected officials to stick their necks out for our kids, and then we don’t support them when our opponents try to tear them down. They need to know if they do what’s right we’ll be there to make sure they don’t lose their jobs.

And with the kind of money these guys have available, that's no empty promise.

So those are the five pillars of magical refurbishing on the nation's education system. And to discuss how awesome all this is, Forbes has asked Paul Tudor Jones (Robin Hood Foundation) to sit down with Arne Duncan, Randi Weingarten, Andy Cuomo, and DC public schools chancellor Kay Henderson. You know this is going to be awesome (even more awesome if you read it while high on unicorn blood).


  1. You've reached GENIUS level in your commentary with this one, Mr. Greene.

  2. I can totally relate to "how to implement lesson plan B when the technology fails once again".

    It's certainly comforting to know that inheriting wealth and gaming the economic system automatically give a person expertise in everything in the world, including education. And it's nice to know, as per Emma, that rich people totally have the power to assure that "elected officials" who agree with rich people won't "lose their jobs" for any reason.

  3. The privatization, and destruction, of public education.