Educational Gaming

I don’t get lotteries.

I certainly understand why state and local governments like lotteries since, according to this article in The Atlantic, they generate $70 billion in sales, “more than Americans in all 50 states spent on sports tickets, books, video games, movie tickets, and recorded music sales”. They collect around 40% of that total, plus taxes paid by the big “winners”. Simple, easy, non controversial income.

What I don’t understand is why people waste their money when the odds of winning more than you spend are beyond comprehension. Especially when most lottery players can’t afford it.

But it’s the poor who are really losing. The poorest third of households buy half of all lotto tickets, according to a Duke University study in the 1980s, in part because lotteries are advertised most aggressively in poorer neighborhoods. A North Carolina report from NC Policy Watch found that the people living in the poorest counties buy the most tickets. “Out of the 20 counties with poverty rates higher than 20 percent, 18 had lottery sales topping the statewide average of $200 per adult,” the North Carolina Justice Center reported.

But the negative impact of lotteries goes beyond states simply pushing new ways for people to descend even farther into poverty.

Last fall on his show Last Week Tonight (almost worth the price of HBO Now all by itself), John Oliver did a great takedown of lotteries, covering the wide array of problems with state-sponsored gambling. Including the widely used justification that proceeds from gambling will benefit education.

The reality, of course, is very different since “lotteries provided no additional funding for education in 21 out of 24 states” where the claim of helping kids and schools is made. In most, lottery profits are not added to education budgets. Instead the money is used to replace existing revenues, often allowing politicians to cut the net amount allocated for schools.

And the state addiction to gaming shows no signs of slowing down as they look to expand gambling “opportunities”, such as slot machines, table games, licensing full casinos1 and even creating lottery apps for your smartphone.

John closes his segment with a good summary of the major problems with state-sponsored gambling.

As I think we’ve seen by now, lotteries are bad for losers, often bad for winners, and a pretty compromising way to assist state budgets.

Think about it this way, gambling is a little like alcohol: most people like it, some people are addicted to it, and it’s not like the state can or should outlaw it altogether. But it would be a little strange if the state was in the liquor business, advertising it by claiming that every shot of vodka you drink helps school children learn.

Finally, there’s one more reason to dislike paying for public education using lottery money. The policy reinforces the image of schools as charitable institutions. Instead of something willingly funded by everyone, because we consider educating our kids to be an essential part of a modern society.

  1. Maryland has one such casino an hour up the road from here at an outlet mall and is building a larger one even closer.

Conspiracy Theory

Last week, Jon Stewart presented a great segment on the array of nutty conspiracy theories that seem to thrive in the desert of Texas. Having lived in Arizona and Nevada, I think there could be something to the idea that the hot, dry weather causes the brain to swell (or shrink?).

Anyway, I have my own conspiracy theory to offer: the probability of any conspiracy actually being real declines by 5% for each additional person whose silence is required for the plan to work.

Moon landing hoax? Alien spacecraft being hidden at Area 51 (for more than 50 years)? The US military preparing to invade Texas?1 Considering the hundreds of people required to keep each of these secrets, all in negative territory of likelihood.

Government agencies conspiring to collect phone data on American citizens? That only took one person, and not even someone high up the chain of command, to expose the deal.

Many, if not most, of these people who claim to see what everyone else has missed (too often on cable “news” channels) also rant endlessly about the incompetency of government. Even though, logically, it is completely impossible for an incompetent organization to formulate complex plots and then keep them totally hidden from everyone except a few loud nutballs.

Of course, logic doesn’t seem to be their strong suit in the first place.

  1. Despite the fact that there are dozens of military bases and hundreds of military contractors all over the state, sucking down millions from the same federal government state leaders seem to loathe.

Moving Forward by Delivering Devices

Continuing on the topic of 1:1 device programs, Wired has a very good review of the lessons learned (and not learned) in the high-profile mess the leadership of Los Angeles schools created for themselves two years ago.

Currently everyone involved is pointing fingers, with the LA superintendent blaming Apple, Pearson, and technology in general. While still buying an additional $40 million worth of iPads and Chromebooks to be used “exclusively for testing”.

Michael Horn, an author and education consultant, hopes the expensive experience of LA “will get people to pause and learn the bigger lesson”. And what is that bigger lesson?

“LA is emblematic of a problem we’re seeing across the country right now,” he says. “Districts are starting with the technology and not asking themselves: ‘What problem are we trying to solve, and what’s the instructional model we need to solve it?’ and then finding technology in service of that.”

I’ll be plastering that quote on the wall at the next 1:1 meeting I attend here in the overly-large school district.

“A lot of schools get into trouble when the conversation starts with the vendor,” Horn says. “Where I’ve seen these programs work is when the school starts off with its vision, and only once they’ve sketched out what the solution should look like do they go out to the hardware and software communities to mix and match to meet those needs.”

Horn goes on to note that ed tech vendors often “design their software in a vacuum” without understanding how their products might be used in a real classroom.

On the other side of the equation many schools and districts are also wearing a mighty set of blinders when it comes to the possibilities for using technology, even tools not specifically labeled “ed tech”, for student learning. That, of course, may require examining and possibly changing our traditional practices

However, after all their problems over the past two years, I’m not at all sure the leadership of LAUSD has learned much, based on this statement from a district spokesperson: “We’re still very much moving forward in technology and continuing to deliver devices to schools.”

Someone probably needs to remind them again that “moving forward” in education is least of all about “delivering devices”.

Start With Why, Not How

Our superintendent has said several times in public statements that she wants a 1:1 program here in the overly-large school district. Although it’s not clear how she would pay for such a program, the super has established herself as someone who pushes big changes to happen sooner rather than later.

So, trying to get out in front of the concept, we have been having a lot of meetings around what a 1:1 program would look like. But, since the IT speaks for instructional technology in our system by default, a large part of the discussion is about the type of device, how it will be deployed and managed, and how we keep kids from doing personal things on what is supposed to be personal machine.

Which is completely the wrong conversation to be having at this point in the process. We first need to address a long list of questions related to instruction and weave in the technical pieces as needed.

Why do we want every student to have a connected device in the first place? If our primary goal is improving test scores, we can probably find better, less expensive solutions.

How should the curriculum and classroom practice change as a result of every kid carrying a powerful communications tool? If teachers continue to lecture, drill, and test based on a largely fact-based program, 1:1 would be a huge waste of money. Very similar to the way we’ve wasted a lot of funds on instructional computing over the past decade and a half.

Maybe we should step even farther back and ask what’s the purpose of school? Schools certainly have a very important role to fill in our county but is it the same as only a few decades back when what an educated person needed to know was largely contained on paper and distributed by a few, specially qualified gatekeepers?

Anyway, these are just a few of the issues that I would like to see our district (including teachers, students, parents, and community members) work on before the first dollar is spent on equipment and software for a 1:1 program. However, in the rush to maintain an illusion of relevance, I’m not at all confident we will stop to seriously consider the why before rushing off to work on the how.