Understanding Blockchain. Sorta. Maybe.

You’ve probably heard of Bitcoin, the “virtual” currency that was all over the news when it shot up in value in January and then dropped off just as quickly in February.

You may have heard about Blockchain, the technology behind Bitcoin and literally thousands of other virtual currencies. A concept that everybody says is going to change everything, but can’t exactly say how or why.

Do you understand any of it? I think I have a basic grasp of the blockchain concept but don’t hold me to that.

On his weekly dose of premium cable sanity, Last Week Tonight, John Oliver does an ok job of explaining all the pieces of the technology. But he does a great job of putting it all in context (“…if you choose to invest in the cryptocurrency space, just know that you’re not investing, you’re gambling.”).

The video is worth 25 minutes of your time. If nothing else, skip to the very funny closing that includes Keegan Michael Key.

However, even if you have no interest in the Bitcoin and cryptocurrency part of this topic, educators should at least have at least a fundamental understanding of the blockchain concept.

There is a lot of chatter about the technology having a big impact on education1 and edtech vendors are already finding ways to weave at least the word “blockchain” into their products.

When the marketing guys shows up at your door, one of you in the discussion needs to have a basic understanding of what you’re talking about.


HBO always posts John Oliver’s main segment to the Last Week Tonight YouTube channel. It’s worth subscribing to.

1. Audrey Watters’ guide on the topic, The Blockchain for Education: An Introduction, is two years old but still the best explainer on the topic I’ve read.

Lots of Charter Talk

It’s back to school time in the US and that means lots of posts and articles about school reform. Including, of course, the love of politicians everywhere, charter schools.

One of the better pieces on the subject was this extended analysis by John Oliver on his Last Week Tonight program. Most of the time was dedicated to the somewhat shady business practices of many companies running charters, with little about the actual education value of the schools. But it’s still the kind of reporting you wish real news organizations would do and worth 18 minutes of your time.

It seems that Oliver’s video actually did strike a nerve with someone. The Center for Education Reform, a charter school advocacy group, seems to be pretty pissed. $100,000 worth of upset. That’s the amount they’ve offered to one of their member school that produces the best response explaining to Oliver “why making fun of charter schools is no laughing matter”.

Specifically, “Let viewers know why students chose your school over all the others. Help them understand the opportunities charters offer (and which wouldn’t exist without charters).” But don’t make the production values too good.

The video must be “home made” on a phone or tablet – slick production values are not allowed because that would just point to the idea that charters are high-profit businesses rather than schools. It can’t look like it cost $100,000 to make, because that would draw attention to the fact that charter folks have that kind of money to drop on PR stunts.

One talking point of charter advocates that might show up in the entries of those enterprising video producers is that charters are still public schools using the same public money. Except that the National Labor Relations board ruled last week that charters are actually private corporations.

In its recent decisions, both issued Aug. 24, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Hyde Leadership Charter School in Brooklyn and the Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School are – like other government contractors – private corporations that receive taxpayer dollars. In the New York case, for example, the board found that even though state law describes charter schools as existing “within the public school system,” the schools were not directly established by a government entity and the people who administer them are not accountable to public officials or to voters.

Of course, this ruling only applies to the relationship between workers and charter companies. It says nothing about the poor management of those firms, and the mediocre education provided by many of them.

Finally, we heard once again from Arne Duncan, former US Secretary of Education and one of those cheerleaders for charter schools who probably still believes they are “public”. In an article for The Atlantic, Duncan says that there are no such things as “miracle” schools but that the charters he has visited are “restless institutions, committed to continuous improvement”.

In their first quarter-century, charter schools dramatically expanded parental choice and educational options in many cities. What was once a boutique movement of outsiders now includes more than 6,700 charter schools in 43 states, educating nearly 3 million children. But the most impressive accomplishment of the charter-school movement is not its rapid growth. Nevertheless, what stands out for me is that high-performing charter schools have convincingly demonstrated that low-income children can and do achieve at high levels—and can do so at scale.

Except Duncan’s high praise is not supported by actual research. Multiple studies over the past fifteen years show that charter schools in the US, with few exceptions, provide lousy instruction and worse results than public schools, and are undermining public education.

But that’s par for the course when it comes to Duncans and others who advocate for privatizing American education. Cherry pick the few charter schools that work and ignore the rest.

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.

The Funny Side of Standardized Testing

In 18 minutes, John Oliver completely tears apart the culture of standardized testing now sucking up far too much instructional time and student attention in our schools. I think he spends more time discussing Pearson’s malpractice than all the news channels combined did in the past year.

There’s not much more you can say.