Category Archives: Business & Economics

On “Innovation” in Social Policy, and “Solutionism” in Education

The following was written by the Princeton sociologist Melvin Tumin, in 1973. Tumin was thinking about the Teacher Corps, a Great Society program that was a sort of lefty precursor to Teach for America, in which intern teachers arrived in disadvantaged schools eager to close achievement gaps and — because it was the sixties — also build racial pride, improve student self-esteem, and overhaul the curriculum to better reflect African American history and culture. Most Teacher Corps interns grew frustrated by the slow pace of change within schools; most veteran educators were suspcious of the interns' intentions and ideology. As Tumin points out, this inevitable culture clash is a key finding of research in organizational theory, and helps explain why it is so difficult for small social programs to impact bureaucracies:

…one of the most important factors that made the Program difficult to implement was that it could not promise the members of agencies and institutions whose cooperation was needed that it would be worth their while. Innovation is a charming word, beguiling and rousing. But it is like other terms such as relevance, concern, sensitivity. One cannot be against these on principle. But they are almost always privately read as warning signs that there is trouble ahead for those who are fulfilling their accustomed routines. Moreover, since most innovation efforts fail sooner or later, wise masters of ongoing enterprises have learned to live and wait until such innovations speed themselves to their ultimate demise. While not many other earthly travails can be safely waited out, with any hope of relief, innovative programs do have that special quality of a high probability of failure, so that “this too shall pass” is a reasonably sound prediction about most of them. 

I read this just after I returned from SXSWedu, and it seemed particularly relevant to the (almost total lack of) dialogue between social entrepreneurs who want to use software to disrupt traditional classroom practices in ways that are supposed to benefit poor children, and the majority of teachers and administrators who might be enthusiastic about specific technologies, but who simply do not see the lack of technology as the key barrier preventing schools from better serving all students. Educators are more likely to point to teacher quality, or to the content of the curriculum, or to factors stemming from the home and family. And sure, technology may be able to address many of these challenges. Yet tech-hypers lose credibility when they ignore the fact that inequalities outside the realm of access to technology remain the primary drivers of disparate educational outcomes.

Evgeny Morozov's recent essay on technological "solutionism" is certainly applicable to the tendency to mistake the technocratic measurement of educational problems, using software, as the very same thing as coming up with solutions to those problems. It should be obvious–yet at SWSWedu, it rarely was–that the quantification of inequality, whether in student achievement scores or ratings of teacher effectiveness, is only a jumping off point for complex political, policy, and social debates over how to use such data, and whether and how to close achievement gaps. The collection of "Big Data" does not, in and of itself, guarantee the formulation of effective solutions to problems.

Is Working From Home a Feminist Issue?

I've worked in offices for small magazines, large media companies, and think tanks. So I know there's a lot about office culture that sucks: useless meetings, crackberries that ruin your precious out-of-the-office hours, and sometimes an assumption that whoever stays latest or arrives earliest is working hardest. In New York, there's competitive dressing. In DC, there are old-school dress codes, as if everyone were about to meet with a senator, any minute now! A lot of this is absurd. I'm a huge believer in flex time for office workers. There's nothing about the hours 9-7 that make them especially productive; a lot of us get more done in the evenings, or while fighting insomnia, or at sunrise. And the occasional guilt-free day of working from home is priceless: the quiet, the pajamas, the home-cooked lunch. For new parents, people with chronic health conditions, or people who serve as caretakers for sick or elderly relatives, having the ability to work from home at least some of the time can mean the difference between being able to hold down a job and being forced to quit. 

So I sympathize with those who are outraged over Marissa Mayer's decision to put the kibosh on work-from-home arrangements at Yahoo. It's insulting to employees to suggest that the only legitimate reason to stay home is "for the cable guy," and Mayer does sound like kind of a nightmare boss, counting the cars in the corporate parking lot at 5 pm. Because women tend to disproportionately handle child care and other domestic responsibilities, it is very likely that female employees will be especially affected by Yahoo's policy change. 

All that said, I'm not sure working from home is feminist nirvana.

I'm a freelance writer — a really lucky one, with a book project, an interesting editorial consulting gig, and frequent magazine assignments. I love what I do. But working from home is by far the hardest and least enjoyable part of my professional life. For one thing, it's lonely, isolating, and, at least in my case, challenging for my physical and emotional health. I often get so caught up in my indoor responsibilities that I forget to get fresh air, put on real clothing, take a walk, or talk to other human beings. At The Awl, Ken Layne pretty much nails what this can feel like. 

And here's the thing. For a woman, being stuck inside "the home" all day–a space traditionally coded as female, one that many women hold themselves to high standards to care for–can be especially stultifying. Here are some of the things I can do, in my home, when I'm supposed to be writing my book: Laundry. Emptying the dishwasher. Booking a hotel reservation for a friend's wedding. Cleaning the toilet. Shopping for and preparing a healthy, low-carb, high-protein dinner for my boyfriend and me. (This morning, I've already done several of these chores, and it's only 11 am.)

No one is forcing me to take sole responsibility for these tasks. If I don't do them when I'm "working from home," they will still get done. My boyfriend and I will split them up, or do them together. But here's the thing: It's really hard for me to be at home and ignore my domestic to-do list. I have a voice in my head telling me that until my apartment is neat, clean, and stocked with fresh food, it's perfectly okay to procrastinate on my real jobs, the ones for which I get paid: reporting, writing, and editing. After nearly three years of freelancing, I've learned that I shouldn't work from home more than one or two days per week. I now commute from Brooklyn into "the city" almost every morning, to work at the New York Public Library on 5th Avenue and 42nd Street. Yes: I voluntarily spend my days in midtown Manhattan, eat lunch at the ubiquitous Hale & Hearty Soups, and dodge tourists in the subway.

Granted, I don't have children yet. And if I'm still freelancing when I do, I know my flexible schedule will make parenthood much easier. Yet I have many freelancer female colleagues, a few years older than me, who admit that a big professional challenge is learning to turn off their mom selves and simply get to work (luckily, work they love). They are some of the people who helped me realize that even if you "work from home," you have to work outside your home often, and if that means scrimping for a babysitter, a coworking space, or a $104 monthy Metrocard, it's totally worth it, if you're privileged enough to be able to afford it. 

So here's my tentative conclusion. Flex-time is a feminist issue. Working from home full time? Maybe not so much. And here are some very definite feminist issues: Access to high-quality, affordable childcare. Paid sick leave, maternity leave, and paternity leave. Male partners who pull their weight at home. 

Behind Obama’s SOTU Remarks on Vocational Education, Germany, and American High Schools

In his State of the Union address, President Obama promised to create a new federal funding stream to provide high school students with technical education, to help them prepare for the workforce. This is promising. As I've reported, during the first term, President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan talked about vocational education almost exclusively in the context of post-secondary schools. That allowed the administration to dodge controversial, historically-freighted debates over K-12 "tracking," a practice that, throughout the twentieth century, pushed non-white students, girls, and the intergenerationally poor into lower-paid professions and away from college. But this political dodge also ignored some important research and innovation at the K-12 level.

For one thing, surveys of high school drop-outs show a leading cause of their leaving school is the belief that nothing they are learning in the classroom will help them get a job. What's more, a number of innovative new high schools across the country are pioneering a model for career and technical education that has little to do with the narrow vocational classes of yesteryear, in which kids were taught how to sew or operate a printing press — skills that technological change can render less relevant over time. Instead, at the MET schools in Rhode Island, Linked Learning schools in California, and at Tech Valley High outside Albany, high school students complete externships in real workplaces, exploring fields as diverse as baking, engineering, biotechnology, and train conducting. Students have the opportunity to dip into more than one profession, because the idea is less to train for a specific job than to see how adults use their own educations in the workplace each day. That helps students stay motivated to earn a degree, and introduces them to the behaviors and practices specific to the working world.

A few notes of caution. First, the school Obama referenced in his address is P-Tech here in Brooklyn — the Pathways in Technology Early College High School. Like a lot of celebrated educational arrangements in New York City (ex; the Harlem Children's Zone), P-Tech is special; it is a partnership between the New York City schools, IBM, and the City University system. To earn the combined high school diploma/associate's degree P-Tech offers, students must commit to a six-year course of study, which is time-consuming and expensive, requiring extra resources that most school districts simply don't have, especially absent the deep-pocketed corporate partners present in a city like New York. Obama's promise of more funding is desperately needed if we want to recreate schools like this one. But since the Republican Congress has demonstrated a specific interest in cutting job-training programs, I'd like to hear more about exactly where the president believes this new money will come from. (Same goes for his pipe dream of universal pre-K, by the way.)

There are certainly discomfiting curricular trade-offs at many vocationally-oriented schools, and we shouldn't overlook them. P-Tech doesn't offer foreign languages or Advanced Placement courses, for example. So I found it interesting that Obama praised the German secondary school system in his address, saying, "Right now, countries like Germany focus on graduating their high school students with the equivalent of a technical degree from one of our community colleges, so that they’re ready for a job." German "dual track" vocational education has been hotly debated among American school reformers for over a century. Why? Because this system is radically different from our own. It separates students after the 10th grade and places them on a vocational, academic, or mixed vocational/academic track. The result is that in Germany today, only about one-third of all upper secondary school students are enrolled in a course of study that leads directly to a liberal arts university. That reality deeply challenges American notions of "college readiness" for all, a major priority of the new Common Core – shared national curriculum standards that the Obama administration also supports.

The truth, of course, is that despite our romanticization of college, only about one-third of Americans under 30 have earned a bachelor's degree. Where we actually do differ from Germany is what happens to the other two-thirds of young adults. In Germany, they typically hold an occupational certification by the age of 20, while in the United States, non-college grads are often left without marketable skills or qualifications.

More on vocational education in the US and Europe:

Inside My Interview with Bill Gates

Yesterday I got to meet and interview Bill Gates, along with five other writers and reporters. We sat around a conference table at a midtown Manhattan hotel. Gates, wearing a totally unassuming gray suit and sipping Diet Coke out of a glass bottle, was business like and to the point. His passion flared up a few times during the hour-long conversation. He vehemently pushed back against economist and blogger Tyler Cowen's suggestion that macroeconomic and population growth, as well as better roads and other infrastructure, could bring faster humanitarian relief to Africa than more direct health interventions like vaccinations or contraceptives, which the Gates Foundation funds. Discussing the bleak living conditions in the Central African Republic and Yemen, Gates said, "If you don't invest in health there, you're a cold-hearted bastard." In a rare personal comment, he discussed how one of his daugthers was moved by video footage of a child survivor of polio limping down a dirt road. "What did you do to help her?" she asked her dad — an insightful comment, since Gates said he feels growing concern about the survivors of once-deadly childhood diseases like malaria and polio, who often arrive at school with cognitive delays that make it difficult to learn. 

On education, I think a few of Gates' comments broke news. He hinted that his foundation may soon invest resources in alternate rankings of American colleges, saying the true metric for success in higher education should be whether a school accepts a student "with a combined SAT score of 600, and they got $100,000 jobs, and they're super happy." In response to several questions from yours truly, he also discussed standardized testing and teacher evaluation at length, particulary in non-traditional subjects such as art and music. Gates said he isn't sure if good tests can be created in the arts, and he called Florida's plan to move forward quickly with such non-traditional testing "crazy," as well as something that could create a popular backlash against education reform. 

In response to Jason Kottke, Gates briefly addressed his reputation as one of the world's most celebrated college drop-outs, and I thought his comments were interesting considering the backlash against college coming from Peter Thiel and some other Silicon Valley luminaries, who tend to imagine upper middle class kids and the Ivy League when they hear the words "higher education." First, Gates correctly pointed out that community colleges and four-year public universities make up "the heart and soul of education in America," and that those schools are currently operating under severe budget constraints, which hinder their ability to move the working poor into the middle class. Second, he said the number of successful tech entrepreneurs or programmers without a college degree is "a rounding error, that's why it's so mythic," and added that he had enjoyed college and "I'm just about as fake a drop out as you can get," since he loves lectures and left Harvard only to pursue the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to launch Microsoft.

Lastly, in response to Jacob Weisberg, Gates addressed the potential of MOOCs–massive online open courses–to transform higher education, saying such classes would not live up to their full potential unless they enroll more low-income students and provide some sort of counseling or support to guide students through completing the MOOC and ultimately attaining some sort of credential. Currently, most MOOCs are seeing drop-out rates of up to 80 percent, and are reaching a fairly privileged audience. 

Head on over to The Atlantic to read my full report.

Further Thoughts on the Politics of Unconditional Cash Transfers and the Notion of the “Deserving” Poor

This morning I told you about my new Atlantic article about GiveDirectly, a charity that distributes cash to poor families in Kenya, and allows them to spend the money on whatever they want. The recipients are chosen not because they have demonstrated any kind of favored behavior, like enrolling their children in school, but simply because they are among the poorest people in their rural villages, living in homes made of mud or thatch and frequently going without enough food. They are generally spending their new income on worthwhile causes, like food and weatherproof roofs.

Yet conditional cash transfer programs are more politcally palatable across the world than unconditional ones like GiveDirectly, whether they are pursued by philanthropies or governments. Why? Because, as this beautiful Reuters piece demonstrates, much public policy rests on the assumption that there are two kinds of poor people: the deserving poor and the undeserving. Deserving poor people work, even if the wages they earn are less than the costs of child or health care. They endure cumbersome bureaucratic processes to seek child support from the absent fathers of their children, even if those fathers are in jail, drug addicted, or otherwise unable to provide for their kids. They open college savings accounts, even if they need 100 percent of their monthly income just to cover the costs of housing and food. They attend classes on why it's important to get married.

In the United States, government tells a small group of poor people — typically mothers of young children — that if they fulfill such requirements, they can receive, for a discrete period of time, a small amount of supplemental monthly income. Childless adults and the longterm non-working, non-disabled poor are almost completely excluded from social welfare efforts in many states. 

No matter how much economic research we cite showing that unconditional cash income and savings improve the lives of poor people and their children, it will remain politically difficult to tell taxpayers that we aren't going to require anything from the recipients of social welfare. That's because most of us assume poor people need to learn how to best help themselves. The radical premise of GiveDirectly is that poor people already know, much better than their governments or a charity director, what they need. 

Which assumption is true? Should governments and non-profits use the promise of cash to attempt to train or educate the poor out of poverty? Or should a basic income be understood as a matter of human dignity?

Can Four Young Economists Build the Most Efficient Charity Ever?

It's holiday giving season. Would you donate cash to a poor family, and let them spend it on whatever they wish? That's the radically simple premise of the new philanthropy GiveDirectly, which I report on today at The Atlantic:

GiveDirectly remains an outlier in the development arena, perhaps the only organization that distributes private donations, made online, directly to the poor with no strings attached–no requirement to launch a business or to immunize one's child; no distribution of bed netssolar lanterns, orgoats.

The economics might be sound. But the politics within the non-profit world are more complicated. Niehaus, now a professor at the University of San Diego, says other development experts who have tested unconditional cash transfers are enthusiastic about the approach. The trouble is convincing NGOs to invest in such programs beyond the pilot stages.

"We had conversations with people [in the non-profit sector] who said there was a lot of internal resistance to unconditional transfers," Niehaus told me. "If this works, what are we all here for? Why do we have jobs? There's an industry that exists that tries to make decisions for poor people and determine what's best for them. In some ways, that's the industry I came from. But the value of that hasn't been proven."

Read the whole piece!

Like Romney, Obama Admin Has Supported Larger Class Sizes. Parents and Teachers Don’t Like It

Despite moderator Bob Schieffer’s wrongheaded assertion that education isn’t a foreign policy issue, class size emerged as a flash point at Monday night’s debate. President Obama boasted about his administration’s record on saving teaching positions and spoke about his plan to hire more math and science educators in particular, which he argued would help American students compete with their international peers for high-skill jobs.

“Now, Governor Romney, when you were asked by teachers whether or not this would help the economy grow, you said, this isn’t going to help the economy grow,” Obama said. “When you were asked about reduced class sizes, you said class sizes don’t make a difference. But I tell you, if you talk to teachers, they will tell you it does make a difference.”

Romney certainly has a record of claiming smaller class sizes don’t help students learn. But what Obama didn’t say is that while it’s true his stimulus funding saved hundreds of thousands of teaching jobs, his own secretary of education, Arne Duncan, has also spoken favorably about larger class sizes. On March 3, 2011 I asked Duncan about proposed teacher layoffs in New York City. He demurred on the specifics of the negotiations between Mayor Mike Bloomberg and the teachers’ union, but then echoed rhetoric in favor of larger classes often deployed by Bloomberg and other national school reformers, like Bill Gates.

“Class size has been a sacred cow and we need to take it on,” Duncan told me. He proposed paying proven teachers $20,000 to $25,000 more annually if they agree to teach five additional students. In an acknowledgement that surveys show large class sizes are unpopular with the public, Duncan added that parents should have the choice of whether to place their children in such classes, but said he’d rather his own children were taught by an effective teacher in a larger class than an ineffective teacher in a smaller one. “It's provocative,” he admitted, “but we're talking about selectively raising class sizes amongst your greatest talent."

Duncan has made similar comments in public speeches, most notably in a talk about education budgets called, “The New Normal: Doing More With Less,” which he delivered at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in November 2010.

While it’s clear both Democrats and Republicans have floated the idea of larger class sizes in recent years, it’s less clear what the impact of class size is on student achievement. Common sense suggests crisis class sizes of 50 or 60 students, which were seen at the depth of the recession in Detroit and some California cities, are much too large, leading even the most skilled teachers to become overwhelmed and unable to focus on individual students’ needs. Those situations are most likely to occur in school districts with high-poverty student populations, though some research suggests poor and minority children benefit most from smaller classes.

Where the class size debate gets really complex is when you look at more typical class sizes; for example, the difference between a 25 and 30-student class. In 1985, the Tennessee STAR project randomly assigned a few thousand elementary school students to very small classes of between 13 and 17 children. A number of studies showed students in those classes had higher academic achievement than peers in larger classes, and were more likely to graduate high school. Partly in response, states like California, Florida, and North Carolina launched efforts to reduce average class sizes, but because of budget limitations, few districts have been able to lower class sizes to the extent the research literature suggests is ideal—by at least six to eight students.

Internationally, the United States has larger than average class sizes, but a few of the nations with even bigger classes than ours, such as Korea, Japan, and Australia, clearly out-perform us academically—as do several countries, like Finland and Canada, that have made small classes a priority.

For policy wonks, the mixed evidence on class size can induce whiplash. But parents aren’t confused—they love the idea of their kids getting more personal attention in smaller classes, which is one reason why, nationwide, private schools have an average of 19.4 students per class, compared to 23.6 students in public schools. Whenever I write about this topic, I also get impassioned feedback from teachers. One Washington, D.C. public school educator told me her ideal class size would be 16 students.

“Class size is tied with improving teacher education as the number one issue in education today,” she said. “Really good teaching is differentiated teaching—meeting each and every kid where they are and raising their level of work bit by bit, day by day. Only by knowing each kid, conferencing with each kid and providing instruction to each kid how he or she best learns can we honestly close the achievement gap. We cannot do this with 26 second graders and only one teacher. It is impossible.”

Help Me Bring the School Desegregation Conversation to SXSW

A lot of education reform events and debates totally ignore the issue of racial and socioeconomic isolation. I'm hoping to address that at the next South by Southwest EDU, and you can help by giving my proposed panel a thumbs up here. It includes Sarah Garland, Todd Sutler, Mike Magee, and myself. We'll be discussing innovative school integration models from Brooklyn, Atlanta, and Rhode Island. 

Give us a thumbs up!

A Short History (and the future) of School Desegregation

The Guardian asked me to respond to a British educator's public comments in favor of American style school busing. I hope the piece is a good overview of the history of school desegregation efforts, as well as the movement's future. This is all very timely in the American context, as well; the latest report from the Civil Rights Project at UCLA shows deepening school segregation, especially for Latino children in the South and West. Nationwide, 43 percent of Latino kids and 38 percent of black kids attend schools where less than 10 percent of the study body is white.

In the Guardian essay, I discuss how various school choice and zoning policies–quite different from traditional "busing"–can help alleviate these trends. I'd only add that integrated schools can present thorny social justice challenges in terms of curricular tracking; many of the academic and social benefits of integration are lost if individual classrooms (ex; the Advanced Placement track) remain mostly middle class or white. I've addressed these issues at length here, here, and here.

Read the Guardian piece.