Doing What’s Right, Not Necessarily Profitable

From Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, in response to questions raised at a recent shareholder meeting about the company’s investment in sustainable energy and the it’s impact on profits.

“When we work on making our devices accessible by the blind,” he said, “I don’t consider the bloody ROI.”1 He said that the same thing about environmental issues, worker safety, and other areas where Apple is a leader.

He didn’t stop there, however, as he looked directly at the NCPPR representative and said, “If you want me to do things only for ROI reasons, you should get out of this stock.”

Argue all you want about the merits of their products, iPhone vs. Android, Mac vs. PC, this is an attitude and corporate policy we should see from more CEOs.

Charter Schools Are a Great Idea

In the original concept of charter schools, a few innovative educators would be enabled to organize their own school and experiment with new ideas for reforming the old model and improving student learning, all under the auspices of, and using funds from, the surrounding public system. The ideas that worked could be incorporated into “regular” schools. The ones that didn’t would also provide a learning experience.

That’s the theory, anyway. The reality has been far different.

Two different articles that landed near each other in my Instapaper queue over winter break offer plenty of evidence showing that charter schools in the US, with few exceptions, provide lousy instruction and worse results, and are undermining public education.

Possibly the biggest problem is that nearly half of charter students are enrolled in schools being run by corporations,2 often supported by grants from large, well-funded philanthropic organizations with a political agenda like the Walton Foundation. And their schools are rarely held to the same accountability standards (instructional or financial) as public schools.

Beyond serious questions about who are running these schools (more business people, fewer educators), is the fact that study after study shows they produce “mixed results” at best.

A 2009 national study of charter school performance by CREDO, a research unit at Stanford University that supports charter “reform,” found that only about one in five charter schools had better test scores than comparable public schools and more than twice as many had lower ones. Earlier this year, CREDO released an updated study that looked at charters in 27 states, and little had changed. As the National Education Policy Center explained, “The bottom line appears to be that, once again, it has been found that, in aggregate, charter schools are basically indistinguishable from traditional public schools in terms of their impact on academic test performance.”

However, there is an equally fundamental problem with the way the charter concept has been applied that goes back to the original idea: very few charters are not doing anything innovative.

Most are structured around the traditional teacher information delivery model, with students required to learn the same material, in the same order, often using the same resources as has been standard in public schools for decades (if not centuries). And then demonstrate their learning on programmed standardized tests.

Some charters make a big deal out of requiring longer days, Saturday school, and more regimentation (KIPP), others substitute computer-delivered instruction for human teachers (Rocketship). Certainly these changes may work for some students under some circumstances, but as test cases that might be more broadly applied, they are generally worthless. For many public schools, these ideas could be classified as “been there, done that”.

Even with all these problems, what I’ve covered here only scratches the surface of why the charter school movement (pushed by many high profile education “reformers”) are doing nothing to improve American public education and are probably detrimental.

Spend some time and read the two articles, along with some of the many supporting citations they link to, for a much fuller picture of why the theory of the charter concept is a great idea, while the reality of charter schools in this country is a crappy mess.

Nothing New

More than a few people I follow on Twitter posted this morning about a “special report” on the Forbes magazine website profiling thirty people under the age of 30 who are “disrupting” education. A few also linked to this post by a teacher ranting about the list being completely void of either classroom teachers and students.

Why is anyone shocked and/or surprised at this kind of story?

First, the list comes from Forbes, a publication that bills itself as “The Capitalist Tool”. They focus on people who are working to make a lot of money, in this case in the education industry. Not on those trying to improve the actual process of student learning. The two parts are tenuously connected at best.

Second, reports like this reflect the usual pattern in the overall public picture of education reform. People held up as leaders in the effort to “fix” our “failing” American schools are wealthy philanthropists, corporate executives, politicians, consultants, and pretty much anyone who is not directly connected to working with kids in those schools.

Of course we’re not going to include teachers or students.

Barriers to Innovation

Over the break I read an interesting book about the very different way one company functions.

A Year Without Pants: and the future of work” is the story of the author’s time at Automattic, which runs, and does so with almost all their employees living and working in different parts of the world.

It’s an innovative way to run a business* and this thought about innovation by the author got stuck in my head.

The fundamental mistake companies that talk about innovation make is keeping barriers to entry high. They make it hard to even try out ideas, blind to how much experimentation you need to sort the good ideas from the bad.

We in education also talk a lot about innovation – both students learning to be innovative and teachers using innovative techniques to improve student achievement. We just never seem to get past the talking stage.

As part of the same theme, the author also observes that for this company “the big cultural bet wasn’t on process but on people”.

Educational organizations, like our overly-large school district, make a fundamental mistake in emphasizing the processes (rules and regulations that must be followed) over trusting people, something that discourages the kind of experimentation that leads to innovation.

No great insights. Just a couple of things to think about for the new year.

* The idea of having teams work remotely is one that seems to be spreading, even in many established companies. I’m in the middle of a book on this topic called Remote: Office Not Required, written by the founder of 37 Signals which also has most of it’s employees working from wherever they want.

Missing Skills

I wonder if the panel working on our Portrait of a Graduate (see the previous post) has read this.

At the end of 2012, Forbes presented a list of The 10 Skills That Will Get You Hired In 2013. Since Forbes magazine says they are “The Capitalist’s Tool”, and education exists to support the American economy, we need to pay attention to their advice, right?

Anyway, cynical ramblings aside, I know we are past 2013 but things didn’t change that much in the past twelve months, so here are the skills a major business publication says our graduates should have to make them employable.

No. 1 Critical Thinking (found in 9 out of the 10 most in-demand jobs)

No. 2 Complex Problem Solving (found in 9 out of the 10 most in-demand jobs)

No. 3 Judgment and Decision-Making (found in 9 out of the 10 most in-demand jobs)

No. 4 Active Listening (found in 9 out of the 10 most in-demand jobs)

No. 5 Computers and Electronics (found in 8 out of the 10 most in-demand jobs) – according to Forbes this includes knowledge of circuit boards, processors, electronic equipment and computer hardware including applications and programs.

No. 6 Mathematics (found in 6 out of the 10 most in-demand jobs)

No. 7 Operations and Systems Analysis (found in 5 out of the 10 most in-demand jobs)

No. 8 Monitoring (found in 5 out of the 10 most in-demand jobs) – the monitoring and assessing performance of yourself, other individuals or organizations to make improvement or take corrective action.

No. 9 Programming (found in 3 out of the 10 most in-demand jobs)

No. 10 Sales and Marketing (found in 2 out of the 10 most in-demand jobs)

Education reformers and school administrators like to talk about many of these skills, often under the umbrella of “21st century something”. However, the fact of the matter is that most students will never be asked to develop or use these abilities during their time in a K12 classroom.

Remember, what gets tested, gets taught, and of these ten, only a whiff of number 6 will appear on most standardized tests.