Category Archives: Web/Tech

On Doing Well to Do Good

Dylan Matthews has an interesting report about a group of young American and British professionals with progressive social values and high-paying jobs in finance and tech. The subjects of the piece are unusual because they are giving away between a quarter and a half of their incomes each year, typically to health and anti-poverty charities operating in sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, inspired by the philosopher Peter Singer, they say they have chosen handsomely paid jobs, like high-frequency trading, because they aspire to give away as much money as they can. 

I'm a fan of some of the organizations, like GiveDirectly and GiveWell, that are loosely part of this movement toward ethical, high-impact giving, with few or no requirements for the individual recipients of aid. Yet I worry about an ethical stance in which any career choice is socially responsible, as long as one pledges to give generously to charity. The fact is, the number of people who choose to make millions in order to give money away is infinitesimal; the ability to donate generously is usually cited as a guilty liberal's justification for richly rewarded work in fields, like finance, that can be defined by bad social values, such as lobbying for lower corporate tax ratestaking advantage of low-income consumers right here in the United States, and bad labor practices. That's not to say progressives should never work on Wall Street or for Big Food/Pharma/Tech; indeed, we need social justice-committed people within those fields to argue and work for ethical change. But the ethical behavior must go beyond individual philanthropy itself and toward efforts to make corporations better American and global citizens.

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. 

Big Data for Little Kids: “Assessment” in Obama’s Pre-K Plan

Via Twitter, I'm seeing a lot of anxiety about the part of President Obama's new universal preschool proposal that calls for "comprehensive data and assessment systems" to track student progress and program quality. I know what you're thinking: Standardized tests for 4-year olds? And I agree, it is absurd to imagine toddlers filling in Scantron bubbles. But that isn't at all what the administration has ever meant when it talks about assessing pre-K quality. Instead, a big part of the Obama/Duncan vision is for statewide data systems that link students' early elementary school performance back to the preschool programs they attended, so those programs (not individual teachers or students) can be judged on whether they adequately prepare children for school.

As I reported for Slate in 2011, the potential best part of this Big Data for Little Kids push is that the accepted best practices for early childhood assessment include "testing" not only literacy and numeracy skills, but also the sorts of social, emotional, motor, and creativity skills that have gotten such short shrift since the onset of No Child Left Behind. For the youngest students, those skills include whether a child is confident asking questions, whether she can fasten her Velcro shoes and zip her jacket, whether she can hum a song and draw, and whether she plays cooperatively with peers. One widely-respected model for early-childhood assessment is the Work Sampling System, in which teachers observe students over the course of weeks or months, and then assign them a numeric rating in each of these categories. Again: Unlike assessment systems in use for older kids, these numbers are not meant to punish or reward individual teachers or students. Instead, the idea is to use the data to help teachers identify where students need to grow – and to help schools, districts, and states figure out how to improve teacher training and program management at the system level.

Testing for older students, I think, has a lot to learn from the best practices in early-childhood assessment. One lesson is that we have to look at the whole child over time, not just at his reading and math scores during a specific hour. Another lesson is that, as psychometricians have been warning us, the most accurate use of a test is as a diagnostic tool for the person who is taking it, not as a human resources tool to punish or reward the test-taker's teacher or principal. 

Now. I don't want to be too optimistic, because early-childhood assessment can certainly get screwed up. In the Slate piece, I describe how Ohio managed to turn a good idea for longterm holistic assessment into a 10 to 15-minute, one-time, sit-down, scored literacy test for 5-year-olds. Most child development experts laugh at the idea that you can tell very much about any kindergarten student in a specific, short block of time like that, since 5-year olds don't typically have the self-control to put aside immediate concerns like hunger or boredom to focus on a Very Important Task. 

A colleague of mine is working on a large paper about early-childhood assessment, so there will be much more to report in the coming weeks and months. Stay tuned.

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.

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!

Bringing German-Style Apprenticeships to the U.S.

My new piece at Slate explains why it’s a good idea to replace the concept of an “internship” with that of an “apprenticeship” — and how community colleges and employers are working together in Tennessee, Maine, and North Carolina to do just that. This model could be applied to many industries, but here I report on training workers to manage the computer-programmed, robotic assembly lines that manufacture cars, turbines, generators, and other huge metal things. 

One shortcoming is that most of these factory-based apprenticeship programs remain heavily male. Since we know so many low and mid-skill female workers are stuck in low-wage, pink collar jobs, it is crucial that companies experimenting with apprenticeships make extra efforts to recruit women.

There Has Never Been a Female Zuckerberg, Jobs, or Gates

One of my personal educational regrets is that I never took a computer programming course. So I really enjoyed reporting this Slate piece on what schools and parents can do to hook girls early on the kind of "computational thinking" that can help them succeed in high-tech careers. Currently, women hold fewer than one-third of American computer science jobs.

The effects of this gender gap reach far beyond whether women are building video games or coding Web apps alongside men (and making technology female-friendly—remember the Siri/abortion flap? Or the more recent dust-up over Asus’ leering tweet?). Over the past 10 years, three times as many jobs have been created in STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and math—than in non-STEM fields, and STEM workers have been far less likely to experience unemployment. Women who work in STEM also earn more than other female workers: an average of $31.11 an hour, compared with $19.26 for non-STEM women. The wage gap between the genders is also smaller in STEM fields, just 14 percent, compared with the 21 percent difference between men’s and women’s earning powers in the rest of the workforce.

Economists expect those trends to continue over the coming decade. And if American women can’t step up to meet the growing demand, our foreign competitors will. Brazil, India, and Malaysia are among the rising powers that have much more successfully prepared girls to enter computer science.

Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, calls the fight to attract girls and young women to high-tech careers "our generation’s major frontier for equal outcomes for women." And Sandberg has a counterintuitive suggestion for how to close that gap: “Let your daughters play video games. Encourage your daughters to play video games!” she told me in an interview last fall.

Read the whole piece.

The Redesign

As I move into book-writing mode, I'm going to have much less time to blog, especially because I want to continue to contribute to Slate and The Nation. So I've redesigned the site so the homepage lands you on some basic information about me and what I'm working on. It's a small change — and all the old links will still work — but I think it will help me feel less pressure to divert my gaze from longer-form projects.

Use the top navigation bar to check out my articles, media appearances, and get a little taste of what the book will be about. My social networking links are on the right. And I'm happy to field any feedback you have in the comments section!

Further Thoughts on Computer Scoring of Student Writing

Today Slate published a piece I've been working on for about a month, about computer assessment of student writing. You may have read about a new University of Akron study that found computer programs and people award student writing samples similar grades. The results are impressive, but their applicability is limited. As I discuss in the article, the study looked exclusively at the current generation of state standardized tests, which require students to write essays that are far less sophisticated than the ones we hope they will write once the Common Core is fully implemented in 2014.  

The recent push for automated essay scoring comes just as we’re on the verge of making standardized essay tests much more sophisticated in ways robo-graders will have difficulty dealing with. One of the major goals of the new Common Core curriculum standards, which 45 states have agreed to adopt, is to supplant the soft-focus “personal essay” writing that currently predominates in American classrooms with more evidence-driven, subject-specific writing. The creators of the Common Core hope machines can soon score these essays cheaply and quickly, saving states money in a time of harsh education budget cuts. But since robo-graders can’t broadly distinguish fact from fiction, adopting such software prematurely could be antithetical to testing students in more challenging essay-writing genres.

In the rest of the article, I take a look at how public school writing instruction might evolve over the next five years, and also at how computer programmers are hoping to improve automatic writing assessment. It has been fascinating to dive into the field of Natural Language Processing, and especially interesting to ponder how Web search technology might someday allow computers to better "understand" the facts and arguments presented in human writing. As adult cheating scandals and exposés from testing industry whistle-blowers like Todd Farley have made clear, people, too, can be highly unreliable graders — so I think education reformers are right to continue experimenting with these ideas.

That said, we should proceed with real caution, fully understanding the limits of the current software and the challenges of making great leaps forward in artificial intelligence. There's a lot to follow-up on with this topic. Today the Hewlett Foundation awarded $60,000 to a group of programmers who developed new, statistics-based software for analyzing student essays. And there are smaller companies, like SAGrader, which take a different approach to the technology than some of the testing giants do. I'll be continuing to follow this story, which I think is a really huge one as we roll out the Common Core and the new state tests affiliated with it.

Head on over to Slate to read the whole piece.