Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Sharing risk & reward

In this week's New Yorker Malcolm Gladwell had an interesting treatment of the economic incentives and disincentives that marked the private pension plans of big auto and steel manufacturers in the U.S. The basic thesis is that overall economic success (in a family, a business, or an entire contry) can be strongly correlated to the dependency ratio: how many able-bodied workers there are compared to how many dependants, those too young or too old to work. For instance, many Third World economies that are struggling have high dependency ratios, because of their many children compared to workers. The breakout economies of the world (China, Korea, Ireland, etc.) are those that have managed to drastically lower their dependency ratios, through cultural changes, urbanization, education, and availability of contraception.

Gladwell extends that same analysis to the big unionized industries that have recently run afoul of their huge pension obligations. Contrary to popular conception, it's not that the benefits they offered were too generous -- it's just that they had a lot of workers forty years ago, and the growth in their industry has not kept pace with the number of workers aging out of the workforce. Ironically, the auto and steel makers had the chance to get in on broad collective pension plans that spanned many industries, which might have spared them their current plight, but they had opted instead to pursue private pension plans to retain greater control over their workers.

All this is perceptive and interesting . . . as far as it goes. The only problem is that Gladwell offers this up as an open-and-shut argument for universal healthcare and pension benefits. After all, shouldn't industries insulate themselves from the risks of demographic shifts in their particular industry, by sharing that risk with the whole national economy? And why should a private company bear the added burden of providing benefits, when the government could do it for them? Their competitors overseas don't have those burdens, since they have universal coverage.

I'm a little disappointed in Gladwell for being so quick to declare the solution obvious. There are massive holes in such arguments. Universal coverage does not wave a magic wand and suddenly Poof! companies aren't paying for healthcare and retirement any more. They are still paying for it -- in taxes. Really, really high taxes. And if you think that the competing nations in Europe are more competitive for their universal coverage, you might ask yourself why many of them are building manufacturing plants in the U.S. Countries with more socialist schemes for looking after their own are staggering under the burden as much as GM or Bethlehem Steel ever did.

Nor does sharing the demographic risk with an entire nation completely eliminate demographic risk. Hasn't he been paying attention to the whole Medicare-is-doomed talk of the last four years? Isn't the entire nation already facing a demographic bubble in entitlement obligations? He seems to ignore the solution that he himself describes as saving Bethlehem Steel: scrap pensions altogether and go to fixed-contribution plans like 401(k)s.

There may be other perfectly good reasons to embrace universal healthcare coverage. But the dependency ratio is not one of them.

Parenting: Just don't screw it up

The studies in Freakonomics had a decidedly anti- bias in parenting. They used the term "obsessive parenting," which I found to be quite inadvisable since it betrayed their bias before they even started laying out the data; they could just have easily said "parenting-focused" and not lost any meaning. But then again, they were probably deliberately tweaking our noses, since it sells more books.

I still find myself somewhat confused by the data. After using such a loaded term I thought they would come loaded for bear, as Pinker did, to show how much parenting didn't matter. But their most solid data concerned the correlation between poor, single parents and high-crime outcomes with their children, so much so that they could attribute much of the drop in crime in the 1990's to the legalization of abortion. They seemed to be quite keen on pointing out that unwanted children were more likely to be be neglected or abused, and of course it makes sense that those kids would be more likely to be criminals, right?

But then they turn right around and start discounting every other influence of parental behavior. They were quite sad to confess that Head Start was ineffective, but they blamed it on the poor education and scant attention of poorly-paid Head Start teachers (i.e. the surrogate parent.) So, does that mean that good schools matter? Well, maybe . . . they cite one study that says schools choice makes no difference in outcomes (bad obsessive parents, BAD!) but then turn right around and try to explain the black-white performance disparity on bad "black" schools. (And, interestingly, what makes those schools bad is, essentially, an environment of insecurity: gang violence, drug dealers, etc.)

To their credit, the authors do a very good job of distinguishing between correlation and causation, and make it clear that it's virtually impossible to distinguish the two in some circumstances. But while kicking around in Correlation Land, they seem to make a big deal about examining some correlations without addressing others. Blacks entering school perform just as well as whites when entering school when you control for socioeconomic factors -- so hooray! we don't need to be racists when we confront racial disparities. But wait a minute . . . why do we have such a strong correlation between race and poverty? Oooo . . . let's not go there. No, wait a minute! It's the schools, bad schools, yessiree. And the schools are bad because of the crime. And the crime is bad because of single-parent families that don't value education. But just remember, parenting doesn't matter . . . as long as you get married, love your children, encourage them in their schoolwork, don't neglect them, make them feel secure . . . nope, parenting doesn't matter at all. W . . . T . . . F.

It occurred to me, reading all this, that an excellent control for the socioeconomic factors would be lottery winners. The profound majority of lottery players are very poor, so I imagine that most of the lottery winners would be very poor, too. So how much do their outcomes change when they suddenly (and arbitrarily) have lots of cash?


Thursday, August 24, 2006

Measuring what matters

I was listening to Freakonomics, and I found myself getting vaguely frustrated. It's true that they tease out fascinating truths from some of the data -- I love the stories about rooting out cheating teachers, and fixed sumo bouts, and ways of analyzing risks. But once they get to the whole nature/nurture question, and started repeating Pinker's conclusions (that parental practices have little affect on how kids turn out) I found myself getting frustrated. It's entirely possible that they are right, and that kids manage to find their way in spite of what parents do, rather than because of it. But somehow I doubt it.

I think part of my frustration is the realization that the things that I value most in people are not likely to be measurable in a standardized test. Is there are test to measure whether someone is capable of keeping a promise? Or capable of reading a text for sheer pleasure instead of for a school assignment? Can a sense of religious awe be measured? Or a the ability to read a face? Can compassion, empathy, friendliness, warmth, determination, creativity, or depth be measured? Come to think of it, is there any human capacity at all that really matters that the tests can gauge? Are the things that you love about your mate something that could be scored?

And yet, remarkably, these are all qualities that we can almost immediately recognize and appreciate in people. Like Pirsig's mysterious "Quality" (as described in Zen in the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance), we seem to be able to recognize all kinds of good things without having the foggiest notion how to quantify them.

When you consider the total paucity of tests of worthwhile things, you have to wonder how well we could possibly be at gauging our success at something as important as parenting or education. The studies may show that our ability to manipulate mathematic symbols or string together words is unharmed by broken families or corporal punishment, nor is it helped by reading to our children or being with them constantly in their infancy. But what does that really show? Does a man gain anything, if he gets his 1400 SAT, and loses his soul?

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The rock star physics teacher

For several years I have been nurturing a vision of what education will look like in the next five to ten years. I call it the "rock star physics teacher" model. In a nutshell, I believe distance learning technology is going to completely change the structure of higher education.

In the current model, a college professor gets up in front of a group of students two or three times a week and delivers a lecture. He answers students' questions occasionally. If he's a really experienced teacher, he's delivered this same lecture many times before and knows it cold. Students sign up for the really popular teacher's class, the one who makes the material fun and interesting.

That's pretty much the way its been done for the last twelve hundred years or so. But there are three very powerful technologies that have emerged that could change all of that:
  1. Video. It is now possible to record lectures. That means that the teacher doesn't have to do the same lecture again and again, year after year; if the lecture is really good, and the production is well-staged, the recording can be an even better experience than sitting in the actual lecture hall. The only limiting factor on such technolgies was the technical difficulty of doing it, and the expense and inconvience of both the recording and playback.
  2. Broadband internet. The broadband internet removed most of the technological and economic barriers of creating and distributing video. Software is making it increasingly easier to edit and produce finished videos, and streaming technologies are making it possible to deliver it for a tiny fractor of the cost.
  3. Search engines. Even if you had great content, and a way to deliver it cheaply, you still needed a way to market it. People had to know your content existed. But the likes of Google, eBay, and Wikipedia have organized knowledge so thoroughly that it is becoming easy to find very good content in the most specialized of niches. Quality information on 18th century Flemish painting is less than one minute away from anyone with a computer these days.

So, now it is possible for a really, really good teacher to record and distribute his lectures, syllabi, teaching materials, and texts to anyone in the world, for very little money. Students could tune in and watch the lectures, and then attend an online chat session with other students and the teacher himself to do question-and-answer stuff. The professor is freed from having to give lectures all the time; he can spend most of his time in small groups and one-on-one interactions with students. Online tools can make it easier to administer tests, receive papers, and deliver feedback.

So, why does the professor need a university at all? Now it is possible for the professor to syndicate himself, to sell his teaching to any school or individual who wants it. Now there are strong economic incentives to have really good teachers, because now a teacher can sell himself to thousands or millions of students instead of just a few dozen at a time. Eventually "rock star teachers" emerge, whose teaching is so good and in demand that they become minor celebrities. It is conceivable that every physics student in the country might take their introductory lecture courses from the same teacher. Or, there might be niche specialist teachers, who make modest livings offering their obscure specialties to those who want them. They might only need 30 people taking their class to make a living -- but when you can draw on students from the whole world, it's not that hard to find thirty students, even for 18th century Flemish painting.

Universities are starting to pour lots of money into distance learning programs, because they are eager to tap a market that scales much larger than their physical facilities will allow. But I think the model will eventually erode the universities themselves. Universities will become more like publishers, and teachers more like writers or actors, free agents in an open marketplace.

I think all this will bring a huge renaissance in the art of teaching. Market forces will reward great teachers, and (perhaps more importantly) wipe out bad teachers.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Triumph of the rational

I finished reading Malcolm Gladwell's Blink the other day, and Harry had mentioned that he was reading Freakonomics, another book in a similar vein of social science applied to interesting topics. I saw that Gladwell had given it a glowing review, so I downloaded and listened to most of it on my ride to and from Charlotte today.

I could (and probably will) blog about both these books for several days, but for now just let me say that they are renewing my faith in academic research. Gladwell and Levitt have taken disciplines that always struck me as relatively squishy (psychology and social science) and total redeemed them for me. They are extremely rigorous in citing (and explaining) the research that backs up their theses . . . and yet, they haven't lost sight of the fundamental questions that are driving the inquiry. It gives me a sense of hope that a single researcher can tackle an interesting and important problem, and discover things that really help us to understand ourselves. My conversation with Kenny the other night, and reading these books, is making me wonder what kind of questions in the realm of education could be answered in this same insightful and rigorous way.

Driving back I also listened to NPR, and I heard an interview with Sarah Chayes, a former NPR reporter who started a non-profit venture in Afghanistan after reporting on the war there. She was trying to develop an economic model that could get Afghanistan into producing profitable crops other than opium poppies. She spoke with what I can only describe as informed passion. Her head and heart were equally engaged. Somehow that seems to fit in with the message I'm getting from Blink and Freakonomics. I think I spent so many years engaged in mystical spirituality (albeit a fairly cerebral kind) that I started to doubt the real value of intellectual work in understanding humanity and making real change.

Monday, August 21, 2006


I hung out with the UNC SKS kids at FallFest, and annual welcome-back-to-school street fair at the Chapel Hill campus. My brain is still working at half-steam today, after staying out half the night with them.

Some reactions:
  • That event was at least twice as big as the last one I went to four or five years ago. I don't think Carolina has doubled in size since then, so something has changed . . . I'm not sure if it's just that the event is better-run, or better-promoted, or if the student body has changed.
  • What struck me the most was the overall coolness associated with extracurricular activities. It used to be that extracurricular activities were considered, well, extra: people did the things they thought were fun, but mostly they were there to go to school. But the overwhelming spirit of the people I talked to was that belonging to student organizations was necessary and expected. It was the opposite of apathy, which was the common challenge faced by student organizations ten years ago. What changed?
  • One of the core principles of the SKS is that you can only really get to know somebody by doing something with them. You can talk with someone in dozens of group meetings and never really know them, but you can work a booth with someone for a couple hours and know vastly more about who they are: the way they approach people, the kind of people who approach them, the friends that stop, the things they talk about. I felt a much stronger connection to everyone there by the time the night was over. As much as facilitators like us have longed to be freed from the on-the-ground grunt work of group-building, there is a tremendous amount of insight to be gained from it.
  • No matter how old you get, when you find yourself talking to young people in a young person's environment, you start to worry about whether you're cool or not. Or, I do, anyway. But, as Buffy creator Joss Whedon knew, you can evoke all kinds of hellish associations in people by making them imagine what school was like.
  • It's going to be a really good year for the SKS. Thaaaaank God.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

What's wrong with education

I just got back from a three-hour conversation with my friend Kenny. I only wish I could spend my whole life having those kinds of conversations all the time. That was one of the explict goals for the SKS community, and one that I still believe is worth pursuing.

The best thing about Kenny, in this case, is that I can natter on about ideas that excite me and he's actually interested. Tonight it was all about education . . . which is very appropos, since Kenny is a charter high school teacher, and both of us have worked with the same educational non-profit for the last fifteen years.

Here's my thesis: the thing that is terrible about education today is that it has practically no resemblance at all to the real world:

  • Almost everything we do in the real world is collaborative: we work with other people. Even if it’s just me and the customer, we have to work together. But most classroom education is completely individualistic and competitive; group projects are rare.
  • Because real-world work involves working with other people, you are almost always working to appease multiple audiences: the boss, the customer, the co-worker, the direct report, the vendor, the salesman, etc. Academic work has exactly one audience: the teacher.
  • Most important process skills that are used every day in the real world are never taught in school. No one is taught how to write an effective email, or run a meeting, or write an agenda, or extract a commitment, or follow up on commitments, basic problem-solving, or even say “thank you” and “I’m sorry.” It’s not that these are “adult” skills that can’t be taught to young people; it’s just that no one bothers to teach them.
  • In real life, people can take proactive action to resolve problems that they see, or seize upon opportunities. School is completely reactionary: the teacher gives the assignment, the student completes the assignment. At no point does the student get say, “I think we need to do this,” and then proceed to do it. (Teachers might give lots of latitude in letting students choose particular assignments, but the teacher is still initiating the action.
  • In school, almost all assigments are arbitrary and meaningless. Students rarely if ever get to do anything that has actual value for someone else. Students might work hard, but they rarely get to make a real contribution to anything other than their own GPA.
  • School is regimented by curricula. Everyone learns the same material at essentially the same pace. In the real world, everyone learns as fast as they can, and to the degree that they require it to fulfill their goals.

I could go on, but you get the idea. School is nothing like the real world. Doesn’t that strike you as odd? Should we surprised that students are not ready for the “real world” when their school experience is so disconnected from what they will really do?

Of course, I have some ideas (some of which might even be good) of how to fix this. But more on that later.