October 13, 2015

A Most Delicious Nourishing and Wholesome Food

I am certain I am echoing others' sentiments here when I proclaim that something must be done about the pervasive ghoul problem in America, and something must be done soon. They are a pox on the nation; you see them everywhere, proclaiming and exclaiming, protesting and demanding, and this is exhausting public will and, also, the supply of a 'public' itself, really.

We all know that ghouls debilitate the citizenry at an alarming rate, far more than terrorists or the flu or even terrible midwestern drivers. Ghouls drain resources and take up air time; ghouls demand attention and suck energy. As per the reality of physics, their destructive actions actually generate grief, a thing which we all know has a half life that is in many cases disabling. And they always seem to leave tremendous messes behind them.

After consulting with friends in other nations -- places where the ghoul problem has been acknowledged for decades, and, seemingly, managed -- and seeking the advice of Knowledgeable People and Scientific Thinkers, I have a proposal that, to my mind, addresses the ghoul problem effectively and at the same time attends to a resource issue much in the news these days in our United States. I hope the reader will take a moment to consider this, with the full knowledge that I come to this with the best intentions and no dog in this fight, as it were.

To start with, I think it is best to think of ghouls as useful in some manner, rather than as just vaguely threatening, and to admit that it is very easy to identity them, even those who prefer the "concealed" approach. That they enjoy presenting themselves openly as ghouls (both online, especially after an event, and also at rallies) really helps with this. So, identification is quite easy.

Collection will require non-ghouls to gather in large numbers, as the ghouls have to be surrounded and "taken out" (to use one of their pet phrases) and is I admit the clunkier aspect of this proposal, but think of the benefits! Once rounded up and subdued, the epoxying process (there is apparently an industrial strength glue that works quite well in adhering the ghoul's dermis to their weapon of choice) can be very swift and then the plastic coating and varnishing process, which is automated, is really very efficient. The end result, which has been recently modelled by a group of motivated and enthusiastic students at MIT, is a 3 foot by 6 foot "brick" (on average) which can be painted, grouted, stacked, or even cemented in place.

Ghouls into bricks then becomes a resource for us all -- think of the schools we could build or, more to the point, retrofit (particularly those in need of repairs after a ghoul event) practically for free! One artist friend encouraged me to include here the creative benefits as well; she envisioned creating a set of public benches and fountain enclosures in various cities across the land using unpainted, transparent ghoul bricks. She was thinking of the impact, the visual "wow" of a park bench made of a ghoul-with-gun encased in plastic (weather resistant plastic, of course) that you can actually see, like a bug in amber, though I think her approach a might bit maudlin. Nonetheless, it shows enterprise!

No doubt others, those Silicon Valley types and captains of industry, will come up with novel ideas for ghoul-brick use as well. But as a start, Ghoul Bricks for Schools seems both appropriate and timely, and in truth it is also future-oriented. Because with the gradual transformation of disruptive and destructive ghouls into inert objects/building materials over time, the student population can only grow.

September 22, 2015

We're in the basement, learning to print

When the film Boys Don’t Cry was released in 1999, the film’s director said that the main character, Brandon Teena, was compelling because the way Teena navigated his transgender identity was, in the director’s view, the most complicated way possible to resolve a problem. This made the director feel compassion for Teena and reflect on how often it happens that we, especially when under duress, build up layers of complexity for ourselves on our way to solving a problem.

I thought about that yesterday when listening to an interview with Dale Russakoff, the author of the new book The Prize: Who’s In Charge of America’s Schools? Russakoff was a reporter for the Washington Post for decades; she chose the school reform movement as the subject and Newark, NJ as the site for this book. More specifically, she chose to really dig into the experiment that played out in Newark when Mark Zuckerberg granted the city $100 million to “do” school reform, an idea that was approved by Governor Chris Christie and was to be overseen by then-mayor Cory Booker and managed by then-Superintendent Cami Anderson.

The details are fascinating, and most of us already know how that story played out. The community of Newark parents, teachers, and education leaders was shut out of the process, consultants charging large fees were brought in, the Superintendent re-arranged students, closed schools, paved the way for charters in the name of choice, etc. And Zuckerberg’s ideal motivation – to upend teacher contracts and provide merit bonuses to the “good” teachers – ran smack into the reality of state tenure law in New Jersey (which protected seniority) and a strong teachers’ union.

This group of people working to solve a (perceived) problem chose the most complex path to do so, in part because, as Russakoff notes, they did not avail themselves of the knowledge and experience of people who had already navigated education in Newark for generations. Reading about the decisions and the thinking of those involved in this scheme is fascinating – much like reading about Mayor Kevin Johnson’s approach to school reform in Sacramento – and also actually really frightening. Because unlike the character of Brandon Teena, these people are not under duress, and are not in a fight for their lives and safety. The school reformers are, if anything, in an ideal position to be broadly informed, reflective, and even patient as they learn about public education.

But what stopped me short as I listened to the interview with Russakoff was her response when asked why she thought the new charter schools in Newark perform better than the traditional public schools in that city (and indeed, better than most charter schools nationally). Her answer was not at all complex and required no navigation.

She said charter schools in Newark get a lot more money into their classrooms and buildings than the traditional public schools do. There are more staff in charter schools, including learning specialists, tutors, and social workers. So students do better in those schools.

When she said that, I nearly drove off the road.

The “problem” to be solved in public education has always been about resources, no matter what words are put around it, no matter what layers of complexity are added. This has been clear since people argued about the use of tax monies to fund schools and teachers back in the 1820’s.

I am happy to think Russakoff’s work as a reporter led her to keep digging and keep exploring to get as complete a story as possible about Newark, school reformers, and the whims of a billionaire who looks on the Newark experiment as a personal learning opportunity for himself. But I am dismayed when I think of all the voices of all the education leaders, researchers, district workers, and experienced teachers who are just routinely ignored when these kinds of experiments in reform are undertaken. And I continue to be weirdly mesmerized by those who create complicated schemes to solve a problem, because, I suppose, they think complexity will lead to the most palatable (or marketable) resolution. But as Russakoff affirmed, schools can provide more for students when schools have more to give. It really can be that simple.

September 14, 2015

Bubbles of Belief

Based on the recent article about life inside Amazon, it is clear that the company is rigorous (to say the least) in its efforts to align employees with a set of ethical and social standards that define, support, and promote the community that is Amazon. What is so creepy, though, is that these are clearly out of alignment with the ethical and social standards of our shared community of human beings.

Folks who do not adhere to (or are not aligned to) the standards of behavior commonly found to be acceptable in a civil society are identified as sociopaths. Yet within the “society” that is Amazon, it sounds like a sociopath would be someone who chooses sleep, loved ones, balance, calm, socializing, health and self-awareness over a full-fledged psycho-emotional commitment to how 1) the company defines what matters and 2) how the company defines an employee’s roles in fixing whatever the company determines is broken. Or, as one deeply committed employee quoted in the article put it, “Once you know something isn’t as good as it could be, why wouldn’t you want to fix it?”

But who gets to define what's good?

And who defines the ethical and social standards of a community? In the case of a business like Amazon, the answer is obvious. In the case of public schools, it should be equally obvious, and also entirely distinct, since public schools are and always have been the models for and reflection of the ethical and social standards of the community of human beings. They are not mini-societies with enclosed systems of reward that serve to promote a product or brand or stock price.

Schools are a public service, and students within schools actually have a property right to education (they are required by law to be educated, and also cannot be denied their right to an education without due process). Amazon employees have no right to employment. And Amazon has minimal obligation to employees. This is not an emotional issue; this is factual – no company with at-will employment really owes its employees anything much at all, and the employees don’t have a basic right to fight dismissal, unless they have union protection. Which Ambots do not.

Public education in the U.S. is being re-shaped by school reformers who would define the good, and the ethical and social standards for schools, in much the same way leadership at Amazon does. But this approach requires modelling something and then applying it to something entirely different, and expecting positive and/or universally applicable results. Like doing breast cancer research exclusively on male patients, for example. Or writing contemporary standardized test questions that require knowledge about animal husbandry

By way of explanation, here's a quick story: A few years back, while living in Silicon Valley, I heard a story shared by the (infamous) design firm IDEO at a training session: IDEO sent out new design staffers on a quest where they had just a few hours to come up with research on and an effective design for a really useful shopping cart. The IDEO office they were at is in Palo Alto, CA, and located just down the street from a Whole Foods. As the IDEO trainers told it, the new design staffers went and did “speed research” at the Whole Foods and came up with a new cart design of which they were quite proud, a design based on the needs of the midday shoppers they had spoken with. And the shoppers they had spoken with, and kept in mind when designing, included a cluster of personal shoppers, people hired by busy local tech folks at Facebook or Google or Apple (or IDEO) to do their errands for them. Several of the personal shoppers were doing a multi-shop trip, buying items for several customers at the same time, and for them the ideal cart would have separate segments so that they could keep customers’ items accounted for. This is the cart the new designers created.

There is nothing inherently wrong with developing an idealized shopping cart for a particular type of customer. But the outcome of the “research” was not applicable to actual real-life grocery shoppers, or rather to grocery shoppers existing outside of a certain enclosed system. Which is where the idea of objective data-driven decision making (a key tenet of Amazon’s culture, and a key concept in contemporary school reform) enters the picture…and becomes laughable. As another Amazon employee noted in the article, “Data creates a lot of clarity around decision-making…Data is incredibly liberating.”

Data is defined by the place and time that you are looking for it, and data is infinitely malleable. So what does the use of data “liberate” us from? A sense of responsibility for anything outside the data we chose to look for? Confronting ambiguity or subjectivity? A sense of connection, social, ethical, or otherwise, to other people and their unending diversity of experience? Or does it really just liberate one from the fear of being a dictionary-definition sociopath?

I can’t know all that an actual individual Amazon employee feels liberated from by using employee metrics and data to shape other employees’ lives, other than tongue-lashings from his superiors. But the recent hyping of the use of data for all things (student success, teacher effectiveness, classroom value-add, school success) seems to “liberate” contemporary school reformers from any sense of obligation, commitment, or professional respect for teaching, teachers, and students alike. Just as data has been used to “liberate” folks from thinking on how actual people use a shopping cart. Or how actual females experience breast cancer. Or from knowing that 81% of the population of the United States lives in urban areas - no farm animals in sight.