Thursday, May 12, 2016

Better Schools Dialogue Part IV: Money and Technology

Continuing an ongoing discussion of a model for better schools between Dimitri Mehlhorn and me. Here are links Part I, Part II, and Part III. This time it's my turn to reply.

Dear Dmitri:

I appreciate your willingness to engage and to some into a space that is not very aligned with your view in the education debates. I also appreciate your willingness to engage with the folks in the comments section (though I find the idea of calling them my "followers" kind of hilarious).

I'm going to respond to your three questions, but I'm going to lead off with a question of my own, raised by your answers.

Exactly what kind of school are we talking about?

I don't mean to be flip. It's just that I feel like I'm getting the picture in little puzzle pieces that don't seem to fit together, like a Rocketship Academy Montessori school or a vegetarian steak. I'm wondering if it wouldn't help us to lay out a more on-the-ground look at what the Better School would look like. Because I'm having a hard time quite getting your vision to come into focus. I'll try this exercise myself at the end of the post, but let me first respond to your question-and-answer headings.

Are these school desirable? (And wither technology)

Well-paid teachers, healthy food, outdoor activities, classes grouped across age levels, Montessori stuff, students teaching each other, personalization-- pretty much all items for which the devil (or the angel or anything else) are in the details. These could be great things, and these could be horrible things. Personalization (which you acknowledge as a fuzzy thing) can currently mean anything from a teacher developing and delivering students-specific content and instruction all the way to chaining a student to a computer for eight hours a day.

This tension between the general and the specific is at the heart, I believe, of much of the education debate. We've reached the point where teachers are suspicious even of something so seemingly good newsy as "Let's pay teachers more" because it turns out that reformsters usually mean "Let's pay a handful of teacher more, but only some. And maybe they should handle quadruple the workload because they're so awesome."

So when it comes to tech, details are everything. It's true that tech is only a tool, but tools shape their own ends. A screwdriver is only a tool, but you can't use it to drive nails. I am a big fan of computer tech, particularly as a research tool. It also allows for some great creation tools and some excellent presentation tools. But I have yet to see a software package that can teach. At best, it can provide adept and speedy "drill and kill" style instruction-- basically a battery of automated worksheet. But there's a reason that we've moved away from drill and kill teaching. It's soulkilling and not terribly effective (okay, that's two reasons). Anything more complicated than that seems beyond the instructional capabilities of software. If you ytell me someone has cracked the code, I'll gladly look-- but I won't believe it till I see it.

Are these schools possible? (Money and technology)

Let's take technology first. I'm aware of the vast, massive change that you describe. Hell, when I was in college, I learned to program in BASIC on punch cards that had to be carried to the computer guy who ran them through the room-sized computer on campus. But, as my professor's repeatedly told us, computers are stupid and can only do what they're told to do. Consequently, the critical question about any technological fix remains the question of who is writing the program.

Fans of computer-driven Competency Based Education and other adaptive teaching programs have repeatedly hung our hopes on an Artificial Intelligence that can analyze and respond to student work, but what they're talking about is a simulation of intelligence. The critical bridge that computer folks haven't built yet, and don't appear to have even come up with a conceptual design for, is the question of how to give a program values or morality. At a minimum, once we start talking about adding value judgments to programming, we have to talk about whose values. Average folks and decades of pop culture present the idea of computer intelligence as devoid of human emotion and bias, but all software has the biases of its writers built in. Here's Will Oremus, senior tech writer at Slate, earlier this week on the big Facebook news bias flap:

But algorithms aren’t magic. They’re built by humans, they’re maintained and updated and overseen by humans, and they’re flawed like humans. Most importantly, they’re built to serve human ambitions, which are inherently subjective.

I would disagree with him only slightly. Algorithms are stripped of some human judgment-- the judgment that let's humans say, "Okay, this is a good time for me to ignore my usual rule about what I'm dealing with." A computer program is not like a human so wise and smart that she's been elevated above emotion and all bias-- it's like a human whose extremely fast and extremely inflexible.

And extremely stupid. Despite year upon year of trying, nobody has yet developed writing-evaluation software that doesn't totally fail-- it "works" only as long as the humans doing the writing agree to keep to the software's narrow and specific parameters. Beyond that, as Les Perelman has repeatedly shown, the software is supremely easy to fool.

Now for the money.

I'm going to walk back my claim that every district in the country has made every decent cut they can think of, because some districts in the country (especially some of the huge ones) are being run by dopes. This is not strictly an educational problem; I have a theory that many of the US's economic woes can be traced directly to widespread Management By Dopes in the private sector. But that's another discussion.

Instead, I'm going to bring up one of my pet theories that I lack the resources to really test, which is there is an optimal size for school district, and it's probably larger than mine and definitely smaller that systems like New York and Chicago. And when a school system is way over or under the optimal size, financial problems occur. Small districts face questions like "Can we afford to run a drama or biochemistry program for just six students?" Big districts, on the other hand, end up with whole sections of the district that is underrepresented and isolated and it becomes easy to at worst screw over and at best ignore the voices from the non-wealthy, non-white neighborhoods. This is one of the places where I sincerely don't understand some of the proposed solutions from your side of the table-- how many schools and school programs in poor New York City neighborhoods could be improved and built up with the half-million bucks going to Eva Moskowitz?

I think optimal size has to do with political scale. Your district becomes too big at the point where your elected board can too easily ignore one whole chunk of stakeholders. Once the district becomes too big then, yes-- money is being spent on the wrong things, generally under a formula of "My Children need more education stuff but Those People over there can handle some more cuts."

All that said, I know many many many many districts, and I teach in one of them, where budgets are cut to the bone. Some of this is due to bad choices on the state level-- in Pennsylvania we suffer from A) bad legislative decisions about the pension fund and B) terrible policy decisions that allow cyber-schools to suck the blood out of local school districts.

On top of that, like many district, we're just not very wealthy. Technology to cover approximately 900 students does not come cheap, and it requires new capital investment annually, as well as a healthy investment in maintenance. There is no big stack of money lying around that we could just tap into-- every new expenditure means another cut somewhere else, and all of those cuts come at a real and painful costs.

The comparisons to private industry don't particularly move me, because there is no private industry that serves the same kind of customer base (everyone, whether they want to be a customer or not) or has little or no control over their own revenue stream or has to answer to absolutely everyone. I have nothing against the free(ish) market-- I just don't think it can help education in any useful way.

How can we get these desirable schools? (Who makes the calls)

I'm glad to see you assert your belief in local control; that may be a point we can chalk up as agreement. A locally-elected school board can be an ugly, miserable mess (lord knows I've had some things to say about my own over the years), but if we are going to pretend to be a democracy and our schools are going to be public institutions, I do not see any other possible path. So let's move on to the question of which voices might be heard:

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).

I have huge misgivings here because having a pile of money is too often mistaken for expertise and for some folks, there seems to be no limit to the ability fall upward. Jack Welch has considerable expertise running a large system and observing massive disruption, but he has nothing to say about running schools that I want to listen to. Corporate management has been transformed in the past few decades by the notion that managing is just managing, and it really doesn't matter what the company actually does. I have watched local and regional companies run into the ground by these bozos, and we've all been watching companies like Carrier screw over workers and communities. We are watching as Captains of Finance suggest that Puerto Rico cut education and health care so that the investors can get paid.

I don't automatically assume boardroom guys are evil. But I do assume that their world, in general, answers to a different set of values than we do in public education. I don't assume that anybody who comes from a business background must be a money-grubbing, bean-counting bastard; I know that many of them are not. But I also don't assume that because they were successful in their industry that they know diddly about getting anything done in mine. Hell, with that kind of reasoning, we could end up with a dimwitted blustering blowhard reality show debt-dodging inheritance based real estate asshat as a viable Presidential candidate.

Now, on the one hand, I believe that everybody in a community is a stakeholder in public education. One of the things that drives me crazy about voucher and choice programs is that they completely disenfranchise every taxpayer who doesn't have a school-age child. No-- every single person who pays a dime into that school system should have a vote in representation and the ability to stand up before that school board and say what they think ought to be happening, and that absolutely includes businessman.

On the other hand, if someone shows up to offer their expertise, I want to know if they actually have some. I don't expect to be treated as a valued consultant in an operating room because I've watched most of the episodes of Greys Anatomy twice (well, until Cristina left, anyway), and I don't expect someone to demand the right to "disrupt" the entire educational system because he made a bunch of money and thinks he has some ideas about school.

There are unquestionably some skill sets that people outside of the education silo can offer that will help schools. But there's a difference between stopping beside the road and telling someone who's struggling with a flat tire, "Can I help you change" and stopping to say, "I'm going to sell you a motorcycle, right now."

[Note: The implication that Mercedes Schneider is a union shill, heavily subsidized by anybody, is puzzling and, as you have to know, without any basis in reality. Schneider is a classroom teacher who, like me, gives up things like sleep and comfy meals to do the work of researching and blogging. I agree that she can super-human at times, but I've met her and she seems exceptionally human to me, smart as hell, and passionate about public education. I don't know why it's so hard for some folks to believe that virtually all of speaking up for public education are doing it for free, but Schneider does not deserve to be tagged with a charge of being a union shill.]


I do think that's a key, and it takes some adjustment from everyone. It means understanding that you don't always get your way. It means not insisting that since your paid employees always listen and obey at work, everyone must do so here as well. It means making sure that all constituents are represented and heard. All. And it means uniting your local voice strongly enough to make it heard on the state level.

My school ?

Locally controlled by an elected board that is responsive and responsible to every part of the community. All employees are paid well enough to keep the district competitive with other districts (nobody should be so far behind that they are the School of Last Resort for aspiring teachers).

Well-wired school, probably one-to-one computer system. Nothing is on those netbooks/laptop/tablets/devices that was not approved by classroom teachers. Nothing is used except at the direction and discretion of classroom teachers (no top-down "You must use The Island of Misfit Math Problems" directives). Expectations are high; belief in students is high.

Class sizes are small. Management of the buildings is largely by teachers, though nobody is in the classroom for less than half a day. Teachers largely responsible for hiring decisions. Resources are readily available, and a wide variety of programs are offered. No state mandated standardized testing. Accountability to local stakeholders through a stakeholder-directed system. 

Enrollment absolutely reflective of local community that the school serves. School is neither hugely "better" or notably "worse" that the schools down the road, but it is completely characteristic of its community.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for correcting that dig against Mercedes Schneider. That kind of crap is exactly what I'm talking about as far as Mehlhorn's deceptiveness and disingenuousness and why he shouldn't be taken seriously as a debating partner. It's just like the crap he pulled with Jersey Jazzman. And if Mehlhorn is wondering why the "tone" gets rather hostile, he can go look in a mirror.