What Are The Kids Up To?

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I’m always rather cautious of major media outlets writing about trends among “young people” or telling us about whatever is hot in whatever the up-and-coming Gen-something is.

No matter how old they are, taking the behavior displayed by a select group of people and extend that to millions in the same demographic, age range, or area of the country is difficult at best. At worst, it leads to unreliable generalizations and stereotypes.

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Education Isn’t the Answer

It must be my week for finding inspiration in the New York Times.

This time it’s in one of Paul Krugman’s columns from last week in which he takes some pretty substantial whacks at the universal truth among politicians and other “experts” that “education is the key to economic success”.

Krugman offers his long term vision that the US will actually need fewer college trained workers, not more, due more to changes in our society than anything to do with our education system.

But there are things education can’t do. In particular, the notion that putting more kids through college can restore the middle-class society we used to have is wishful thinking. It’s no longer true that having a college degree guarantees that you’ll get a good job, and it’s becoming less true with each passing decade.

So if we want a society of broadly shared prosperity, education isn’t the answer – we’ll have to go about building that society directly. We need to restore the bargaining power that labor has lost over the last 30 years, so that ordinary workers as well as superstars have the power to bargain for good wages. We need to guarantee the essentials, above all health care, to every citizen.

And all that is going to require huge changes in societal attitudes and vision, not increasing student scores on meaningless tests and pushing more of them into college.

Short Term Thinking, Long Term Failure

Any other public school educators getting tired of being told you’re overpaid?

State and local politicians are loudly claiming teacher pay and benefits are bankrupting their governments, and a long parade of “experts” on the talking heads channels have declared us to be wildly over compensated (at least compared to the divine private sector), greedy, and don’t forget lazy.

Many of those same people make lots of noise when international comparisons of test scores show our students ranking in the middle of the pack but ignore other statistics showing teacher pay in the US also ranking low when compared to Finland, Korea and other industrialized countries.

They also want to change teacher compensation formulas to pay them based on changes in test scores, the so-called “value add” system, despite there being no evidence that such formulas (or the tests themselves for that matter) have any validity when it comes to student learning.

On the other side of things, one lone voice, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, tries to make the case for raising teacher salaries, starting with the common reasoning that, if we want to improve schools, we need to attract more talented, better educated people to the profession.*

However, his better argument, one that needs to be made more frequently, is the long term benefits that comes from investing in good teachers and good schools.

Recent scholarship suggests that good teachers, even kindergarten teachers, increase their students’ earnings many years later. Eric A. Hanushek of Stanford University found that an excellent teacher (one a standard deviation better than average, or better than 84 percent of teachers) raises each student’s lifetime earnings by $20,000. If there are 20 students in the class, that is an extra $400,000 generated, compared with a teacher who is merely average.

During the economic mess of the past three years, we were told that the million dollar bonuses being paid by the likes of AIG, Bank of America, and other financial service companies were necessary so that they wouldn’t lose talented people.

The same “talent”, of course, that created the incredible risky investments that cause the crash in the first place.

Anyway, you rarely hear anyone saying anything about paying to retain talented teachers and principals, despite all the talk about them being the key factor to building a “world class” school system.

That’s because most people running business and government in this country are totally fixated on short term gains – the next quarter’s profits, the next election – rather than paying for long term public investments, ones that pay off in 10, 20, 30 years.

It’s why our roads, bridges, and public transportation systems are falling apart, why we continue to rely on increasingly expensive and scarce fossil fuels for energy, and why our school system is stuck with a 1950’s industrial model in this hyperlinked information age.

Considering that too many people in this country are worried about their day-to-day issues, I’m not optimistic about the short term thinking of our “leaders” changing anytime soon.

But something about our national attitude about planning for the future does need to change.

*Kristof weakens his case somewhat with the line “as measured by SAT scores” but that’s another rant.

It’s Got Star Power!

Reading or watching a story in the popular media about how technology is being used in schools usually makes me cringe.  Take for example a recent article in the New York Times about schools embracing iPads.

The two digital pages include several extremely superficial examples of classroom use that include over-the-top quotes like “I think this could very well be the biggest thing to hit school technology since the overhead projector.” from a principal.

And this observation, “It has brought individual technology into the classroom without changing the classroom atmosphere”, which is rather scary since a truly successful 1-1 program should change the classroom in some very significant ways.

Plus the incredible instance of the school that “converted an empty classroom into a lab with 36 iPads – named the iMaginarium – that has become the centerpiece of the school because, as the principal put it, “of all the devices out there, the iPad has the most star power with kids.”

Don’t get me wrong, I think the iPad and other touch tablets have a lot of potential as learning tools and, if we are ever going to break out of the teacher-centered, lecture/demo, traditional classroom, students will need to have some kind of easy to use, always connected, personal communication device.

However, until that potential is better realized, I wish reporters at the Times and elsewhere would pay closer attention to people like Larry Cuban who very correctly observes “There is very little evidence that kids learn more, faster or better by using these machines.”

What Would You Pay For That Brand of Information?

Evidentially, there’s a big fight going on at the New York Times over how much to charge for the new digital edition being prepared to launch when the iPad goes on sale next month.

The people currently in charge of the paper version want to charge $20 – $30 a month.

Why so much? Because they’re said to be afraid people will cancel the print paper if they can get the same thing on their iPad. Nevermind that iPad distribution comes with none of the paper or delivery costs associated with print, or that there’s already a free electronic edition available to subscribers who cancel.

On the other side are the folks running the Times’ online edition who are pushing a price of $10 a month, still much higher than the current web site (free), which owners plan to pull behind a pay wall in 2011 regardless of the iPad.

Realistically, anyone at the Times who believes they can persuade a meaningful number of subscribers (that is, enough to save the business) to give them $30 a month for a digital version of their paper is crazy.

I’m not sure they’ll be able to find enough readers, especially outside the New York metro area, willing to pay $10.

The bottom line is that the owners of the Times (and other distributors of data) are selling a package of not-particularly-unique information to which they attach their particular brand.

And they need to seriously consider if that package is one that consumers will pay to have delivered, digitally or otherwise, on a regular schedule.

So, what would you pay for regular access to a brand-name digital information package (aka newspapers and magazines)?

I suspect the owners of those packages have a much higher opinion of their brands than do most of the people formerly known as customers.