Prezi allows some neat presentations (tautology)

I’m not certain yet if this is merely a different form of eye-candy than PowerPoint, but it does allow a creative presenter to assemble a non-linear presentation with multiple levels of detail. See “Playing to Learn Math?” for a great presentation how game-based learning can help kids do more than merely pass standardized tests, but actually come to understand math.

A Broken Citizenry fails to pick Leaders who can make responsible long-term decisions…

I’d like to call your attention to an excellent post from my friend Lee Wilson’s Education Business Blog titled “A Broken Senate Fails America’s Children“. Hie thee hence…

Unless you’ve stopped believing that Government is of, by, and for the people, this debate needs to happen around every family dinner table (or pub or workplace if you don’t have a family). In the end we get the government we deserve. My comments (also submitted to Lee’s blog) follow:

It seems as if SLGs were asking for a bridge (to carry them over the chasm with level funding) or at least a parachute so they could land at a lower level with minimum damage. Unfortunately, like Wily E. Coyote, they’ve been handed an anvil.

Given that 80% of the costs are labor – and a lot of that labor cost is biased towards the longest-serving teachers (whether or not they’re the most-effective ones) – which of the options do you perceive as most likely? Are there other alternatives that could lead to a “best-worst” outcome?

Option 1: Act as if this is a bigger-than-usual funding blip but do more of the same belt-tightening. Throw all non-teacher spending under the bus and apply last-hired/first-fired policies enshrined in union contracts. You have to layoff a lot more junior teachers to close a funding gap (because they’re much cheaper).

Option 2: Restructure costs the same way a corporation in an aging/dying industry does. Cut the senior/expensive staff (and give more responsibility to any stars that have been stuck due to lack of growth opportunities), flatten the administrative hierarchies and paperwork, and outsource non-core functions ruthlessly. I’m not sure that education has figured out its “core business” given all that they’ve taken on as a generalized social services delivery mechanism.

Option 3: Use what little capital exists to fundamentally change the business model. In industry, the percentage of companies that succeed is small (although the performance of turnaround successes are great). I think only the strongest districts could attempt this without dedicated capital – and they’re the ones most likely to try and hold on (because they can and because it minimizes risk).

The scary thing about a pending collapse is that it will be uneven. Some schools and districts have sufficient finances (via conservative budgeting over the years) and sufficient social capital that they will get through this. Others will have a collapse so complete that they’ll look like Detroit (or worse yet, like Ciudad Juarez). We may not be able to afford to fully fund education, but that’s far cheaper than permanently subsidizing citizens and immigrants forever closed off from family-wage opportunities!

States will need to restructure their budgets for the long haul. Oregon, for example, built its budgets for this year and next assuming no further stimulus would pass. The outgoing governor had also created a “Reset Commission” whose recommendations have just been revealed. Rather than continually cutting and squeezing across the board, the proposals call for government to divest itself of a number of missions and permanently shut down those services deemed less necessary to the long-term health of the private-sector.

This in the end is the big battle – what level of public services are we willing to pay for? One vision says “pay less for less” and another says “pay more for more”. I’m not sure we get either of those options because we’ve had a number of years of “pay less for more” using debt financing and we’re not likely to be happy about the “pay more for less” that we may have to endure over a generation to work down those same debts.

I’ll close these (rambling?) comments with a quote on Democracy from Lord Macaulay that reminds me of the dangers we’ve been running for most of my adult life:

“A democracy cannot survive as a permanent form of government. It can last only until its citizens discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority (who vote) will vote for those candidates promising the greatest benefits from the public purse, with the result that a democracy will always collapse from loose fiscal policies, always followed by a dictatorship. The average age of the world’s greatest democratic nations has been 200 years. Each has been through the following sequence:

From bondage to spiritual faith.
From faith to great courage.
From courage to liberty.
From liberty to abundance.
From abundance to complacency.
From complacency to selfishness.
From selfishness to apathy.
From apathy to dependency.
And from dependency back again into bondage.”

– Lord Thomas MacCauley, May 23, 1857

Why TFA is still needed…

This is a response (longer than their 4000 character limit could handle) to the posting at Education Week’s TeachingNOW blog – see http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/teaching_now/2010/06/amid_teacher_layoffs_is_tfa_still_needed.html for the original post.

First, some observations about TFA:

  • TFA has proven that you can take young grads from top schools with non-teaching degrees and make teachers out of them at least as good as new grads from teaching schools.
  • The TFA program appeals to participants’ idealism and provides them an opportunity to spend two years in some of the most challenging school environments in the country.
  • After the initial two-year commitment, some fraction stay on because they want to devote themselves to making a difference from within the classroom.

The real strength of TFA is that the bulk of their participants return to the “real world” where they are likely to become part of the next generation of leaders (they did come from top schools, after all, with degrees that prepared them for something besides teaching). As they move into positions of responsibility (and power and wealth), they are better prepared to effect change (UPDATE: in education) than those captains of industry who never darkened the door of a classroom. Hasn’t that been a big complaint of the teacher’s unions and school/district admins – that those agitating for change “…don’t understand what we do in the classroom”?

By the way, there’s another benefit – some of those who return to their original career path modify their goals based on their experience. A daughter of my closest friends, whom I’ve known since she was 2 years old, entered TFA after graduating magna cum laude from Harvard. This was a “pause” before entering medical school. She was assigned to the Recovery District in New Orleans to teach high school science – to kids who had never done a hands-on lab. She not only spent two years figuring out how to teach “beyond the textbook” (and classroom), but when she returned to medical school she redirected her path towards public health and intends to serve inner-city poor people with limited access to health care. She’s still in school, but I expect her to join (or found) a clinic serving those in need. I would similarly expect her to be involved in improving the education of her school-age patients. This is only one data point, but it’s a case where TFA has long-term ramifications for improving education beyond keeping a smart person in the classroom.

Now, to answer the last question in the original post – Why can’t education schools produce the kinds of teachers who would be qualified for those hard-to-fill jobs?

The reason education schools can’t graduate enough students for hard-to-fill jobs is that they have not proven that their graduates are competent to do anything other than teach! This would require the opposite program from TFA – taking ed school graduates and having them serve two years in industry before they enter teaching. Any takers in industry? Anyone want a freshly-minted graduate of an education school to work in your software company or law firm or hospital or engineering firm??

This fundamental asymmetry – coupled with the lack of employment stability (e.g., uneven revenues for districts coupled with last-in/first-out union contract provisions) – means that the best-and-brightest would be nuts to go to a school which only prepares them to teach! Any economically rational decision would lead you to avoid ed schools if you had a choice.

The previous discussion refers to undergraduate programs, of course. How about graduate degrees in education for those with a bachelors degree in some other discipline? The situation is different here – but still acts to suppress the number of qualified candidates. Consider someone who seeks an M.A.T. (immediately after their bachelors or after a couple of years in industry). Can they take on additional debt for a job that pays less (and is less stable) than the one they already have? Would a bank approve them for a student loan for a fifth year of education where their expected first-year income declines with the additional education.

How about a joint B.A./M.A.T. program? This would substitute some of the normal “minors” courses that complement a major with courses to help you teach “minors”. Such joint programs could be done in 4 years. This looks like a better solution. The young adult who is interested in teaching can tackle hard-to-staff positions (especially if their bachelors is in math or science or some in-demand content area). They have taken on minimal additional debt. Perhaps there’s differential pay for these hard-to-staff positions that raises the salary to the point where the perceived psychic rewards of teaching can make it more attractive than a starter-job in industry.

Are education schools within strong universities developing these programs and partnering with their non-education colleagues? There are people like Eric Mazur of Harvard who are doing cutting-edge research in how to teach university-level subjects (Physics in his case). Wouldn’t this be a fruitful collaboration that could simultaneously improve college and high school (and middle school) teaching? (Elementary school still requires some specialized training on how to deal with the very young whose cognition is radically different from adolescents or young adults.)

Of course, it will hard to initiate and sustain a flow of great new teachers unless we replace the factory-worker/unempowered-laborer model with one relying on knowledge workers who are given autonomy to accompany their increased accountability.

Perhaps the answer is staring us in the face – and we should simply restructure the profession to be like the Peace Corps (or like TFA!!). In this model, teaching is only a lifetime profession for some. Most sign up for a hitch of 4 years and then move on to something else. A few re-enlist and become lifers. You “wash out” those who aren’t cutting it and won’t improve; you conversely provide incentives to retain the very best and give them the opportunity to share what they’ve learned with the newbies to leverage their experience.

This would require the abolition of tenure. Teaching would cease to become a lifetime profession for all but the extremely valuable (who take on a PD and/or oversight role as part of their duties). It becomes an attractive life-stage through which our best and brightest pass before moving on to other things.

Gee – this sounds similar to TFA! I don’t know if this is the line of reasoning Wendy Kopp used when starting TFA, but it implies that the long-term “win” for education is to make the customary teaching path more like TFA (instead of making TFA hew more closely to the customary path).

Thoughts? Should we be thinking about restructuring the teaching profession to more closely match the path laid out by TFA? Remember that TFA doesn’t dump-and-run its teachers on the schools. They form a community of practice and gather metrics to focus on improving the quality of teaching and the resultant student outcomes. Why don’t education schools do this? Why don’t B.A./M.A.T. programs do this?

Why Cloud Computing for Education?

Let’s start by talking about scale – do you have an oil well in your backyard – with a refinery to crack your own gasoline? Why should every school district run its own data center or manage its own hardware to offer services? Even LAUSD or NYC don’t have enough scale!

Check out Cloud Computing Economies of Scale for an excellent discussion on how really efficient data centers are built. James Hamilton – who is a VP and Distinguished Engineer at Amazon is worth watching as he delivers an extremely accessible analysis of where efficiency arises. Share this with your favorite Physics, Math, or Economics teacher because the talk is clear and is a real-world example.

Welcome to the new MemeSpark site!

I’ve moved the site from Windows Live (where the tools led to a static site) to a WordPress-based site. Over the next couple of weeks I’ll start generating posts relevant to:

  • Personalized Learning – and the changes necessary to move from mass teaching (not sure there’s such a thing as mass learning)
  • Building massively-scaled solutions (without massively scaling costs)
  • Usability for kids and teachers

Stay tuned!