Tuesday, December 10, 2013

School as Department Stores

I am perplexed by the way education as a social service has so completely been overwhelmed and then accepting of the corporate philosophy, model of management and jargon. What is it about teachers and their profession that makes them especially vulnerable to this model of management? Ah! I know why! Its because it is easier and it is someone else's responsibility and authority! And it's cleaner as true education is a messy and unpredictable activity, hardly amenable to an organized market system.

I am reminded of the old department store when I think of schools these days, establishments like the Hudson's Bay, Eaton's, or for our American friends Macy's, JC Penny, K Mart and Target. The parallels are obvious and frightening when we then apply these notions to our children and then wonder why they, for the most part, can't or won't think outside the proverbial box.

Stores have to be clean, efficient, show sales figures, draw people in, keep them and make them consume, show profit, and when done hustle the consumer out to make room for new. Customer desires are determined by data from sales figures as to which products need to be stocked and which to discontinue. Accountants and experts in business administration crunch and massage these figures to create sales goals, manage profit margins, properly deploy employees according to their credentials and/or pay rate. Time sheets, punch clocks, rules and regulations between management and labour are negotiated to some degree. Often threats of punishment from above such as loss of hours, loss of pay or the pink slip are implemented with the response from below of work to rule, increased absenteeism or strike. I see the parallels to a school and it's system in everything stated above. New schools are designed along that of fake town squares, the Mall, owned and controlled by Mall owners and operators. They are no longer institutional looking purpose built structures, but rather commercialized looking places where education is consumed.

In-house security to prevent shoplifting, unauthorized access, annoyance or a sense of insecurity to paying customers is everywhere and growing. Vagrancy is very undesirable, everything has a consumerist purpose. Advertising is unavoidable throughout the establishment, visions of perfect people where envy and jealousy are the prime motivators of purchasing products. Again the parallels to a classroom and school is obvious.

Feeding the instant gratification desires of our clients, that is students, is necessary. They must see their grades online at any time of the day or night. Parents knowing instantly the value of their investments and labour costs is a must. The student consumer also has to know this in order to make useful cost benefit analysis of their time and effort to properly allocate their resources in order to maximize their satisfaction of the scarcity issue within their wants and needs. Short lived use of the purchased item leads the consumer to come back again and again for the new and improved versions of the product.

We are being asked to have 'marked by' deadlines to ensure the student grade is as real time as possible. It's like price versus return in a stock market. Having marks posted and up to date is like looking at the stock ticker flashing past giving real time valuation to a product. I'm at a bit of a loss what that product really is. Hopefully it's not each course a student is in. Treating a course as a commodity to which cost benefit analysis, market share potential and profit would be applied would destroy education, learning, self improvement and most importantly the search for truth and meaning in life. I am sad to say it looks more like that than not. All the great minds of the past are probably sadly hanging their heads.

We have come to believe the consumer, the parents, are always right even when we know they are not. Whatever the parent wants we bend over backwards to make it happen. They are the paying customer after all, albeit through minimal taxation as opposed to the real cost of educating their children. People without children pay and so too indirectly does business. So, who has the true helm of education in their hands, elected political officials, the electorate, business leaders?

We know instant gratification consumerism is only temporary short lived fulfillment. While instant gratification may sell something to someone, or convince someone they must have something, or getting praise for work (not necessarily good work) is more valuable on a resume than the respect earned from years of experience or a full career, the idea remains that long term satisfaction has always been seen as far more valuable.

Globalized economic ventures and values are also mirrored in education. Competition for the best and brightest as well as comparative advantage in trade between nations is shown through the advertising for and attraction of foreign students as well as educational competition between nations through the OECD PISA exams. These exams make us pit children against children on a global scale between national and regional educational systems. This makes methods and teachers as 'trainers' of these children more valuable rather than as true educators. The morality of this is highly questionable and the ethics demeaning to us all. Why don't our students think outside the box? Quite simply because we really don't want them to.

The virtues of business practice are well known as are all the myriad ways people lie, cheat, cut corners to maximize income versus it's costs. Lehman Bros, Murdoch and Madoff comes to mind. Profits must always go up. Growth must always be seen to be expanding. It is perpetual and limitless. It is the definition of modern progress. Our children see all this, the hypocrisy that is there for all to see. We can always demand more from our children whether through 'modern and progressive' or 'drill and skill' forms of education. That is until the market collapses.

Unfortunately, as we have seen on the economic front in the past few years, instead of making a new, better system for all we shore up the old, entrench it further and take more from the masses to feed a few. We ignore the truly innovative, reward old ways with some twists and turns to make it appear better and press on. We are doing the same with our children. When will they collapse?

Rational History Part Two

I hope students think more than 'historically in a rational way' as explained in Part 1 of this topic of Rational History. If all one does is look rationally into the past the only option remaining in our actions today towards the future is to recapitulate the past, that which we then only know. Strict use of objectivism and rationalism as method rather than as tool, destroys divergent, intuitive leaps in thought. In objectified rational thinking all one gets is the logic that is derived from it, that is, a certain pre-determination of outcomes (it is not by accident that religious predestination among early Christian rationalists came to be an inescapable conclusion). The potential for broad thinking is diminished. Imagination becomes stifled by what was and is rather than the freedom to think what can be. With a bit of history students should begin to think a-historically. That is, toward not just one, but multiple possible futures any one of which may be better than today and some that will be worse! We are not talking of the insanity if irrational thought either. I am speaking of arational, intuitive leaps of thought. In my view the youth of today and particularly their teachers must broaden their scope rather than be limited by objectified history and rationalistic logic leading to the potential and the danger of the recapitulation of the past through the essentialist actions of the reductionist. History has no future if this essentialism is paramount, for then only determined outcomes can be foreseen. The unforeseen, both potentially good or bad, are then to be avoided. If these unforeseen things do occur they are as catastrophe. But none of this is possible apriori as is it not knowable what, or which, circumstances will create what will become history.

It is here that we come face to face with the idea of how much do we need to know to make a prediction? Everything that can be known of the past? If this were true then we'd truly have no future as all our time and effort would be required to study all the intricacies of what has been done and we would still never know enough. We couldn't live in the present for all the time we would have to invest in the past to predict an unknowable future. We would then have to trim our requirements down, we'd have to make generalizations of the past. And the more we make of those the looser and more dubious and unreliable our prognostications become. The basis of everything involved in rational historical study becomes untenable. We be just as well off to use astrological charts to predict the future.

Another fatal flaw of the rational approach to history is the scientific need to collect data, mountains of data. And this quantitative approach leads one to use statistical mathematic analysis to draw out that which may be spoken about. Of course statistics likes to draw inferences from its largest data sets, that is the region within data fields which will render the greatest statistical likely hood of being involved in the action or question being researched. This ultimately means averages are created, and it is the commonality of events that the averages are that can lead one to say that a high likelihood of something occurring lies within a high average, or degree of probability. In other words the method of the study determines its outcome.

And, yes, you could say based on the analysis of the data such and such will happen. Well, at least, you could say that, but you would be wrong, of course. Wrong, because no matter the data, the massage or the twist, history cannot and does not repeat itself and is therefore completely unpredictable except in the broadest and most general of terms. For example, the sun will come up tomorrow out of the east and as the day wears along eventually after a predictable amount of hours will set in the west.

This is a problem as most often it seems, it is not the average person, group, or event, that rises to notice. In fact, this is such a problem that this form of analysis leads to gross oversimplifications. Rather it is the outlier beyond the radar of average, beside statistical likelihood, outside the average that becomes crucial. It isn't the common or the average among us that drives the great people and moments in history. It is, rather, the outliers living beyond the seeming recognition of history that are the engines towards our future.

I am not so sure 'how and why' we got here is as important as it once was. What is done today for tomorrow is far more important. I believe the old saying that 'if one does not know history one is doomed to repeat it' is erroneous. Nothing in all my studies of history has shown that history repeats itself. There may be similarities from time to time but nothing is ever exactly the same, circumstances are always different, the people are always different, the cultures, traditions, technology and so history is always different. That being the case, then what can the study of history be for? Some use it to justify retribution, even old scores and even guilt tripping. But often it is used by those in positions of authority to justify why they are where they are and to enshrine it for the foreseeable future. History, such as it is, is often used as a justification for sovereignty, as a means for the powerful to functionally, historically lend credence to their rule.

Prognosticating the future, particularly a free future, is nothing more than guessing. The numbers of variables involved, the largest of which would be people themselves, are innumerable. Of the causal variables it is only a guess again which would be important to any given event and a further guess as to how that may influence the vicissitudes of history.

Friday, December 6, 2013

This is still true...

I came across this little piece today on my hard drive. I have meant to work on it for some time. I think I first wrote about it in 2009, perhaps 2010. I re-read it and am sad to say it remains valid.

Hedge funds and the Economics of Grades (2009)

I hit upon a new 'economic grade' term this afternoon in class. It began with a student asking if there were going to be any other projects than the term paper. I replied that I hadn't thought about it and asked why the need to get another project mark. "Oh, well, its just that I am really good at projects." she said.  I then said, "Your paper should be a good read then." To which she replied, "Probably not and that's why I want to do another project like we did last year with puppets.  I got a really good mark for that and it was fun."  "Ahhh," I said, "It’s just like the new unit on economics we start tomorrow. “You want a hedge fund! Do you know what that is?”

There were blank stares and shaking heads around the room.

“It’s when you make investments, like when you do your homework, in order to gain marks.  You study for tests to help you do better in the market of grades. Some days if you have two things to do you will decide which will give you the best marks and just do the one that gives the highest and forget the lowest - that is cost benefit analysis. Some other days you will have two different pieces of homework from different subjects and you'll use cost benefit analysis again and comparative advantage (which subject you are best at and get the easiest and the highest marks for) to help you decide which to apply most or least effort to in order to maximise your marks and overall grade for the least amount of effort. And sometimes teachers give you grades just for showing up, or for putting your name on a paper, or for good behavior. These are welfare grades, marks available to those who can’t, or won’t, get good grades any other way. With me so far?“

Then there were hesitant nods sprinkled throughout the room. I went on...

“Well, what you want now is easy extra marks for an extra project to add to your over all mark, right?”

Nods all over this time!

“This is to ensure that in case you do not acquire as much grades as you had hoped in the regular investment of the term paper, in the same way that if your money investments tank like they have over the past 6 months, you want to have a hedge fund, an extra project, where you can get extra easy 'for sure' marks to make up for the possible shortfall in grades earnings on the term paper so the hit, or loss, won't be as bad. Does this about sum up what you want?”

Guilty nods all around - I laughed like crazy! They must have thought me a mad economist!

“NO!“ I emphatically said to them.

“So,” I said as I went on, “to continue this line of thinking…if the worst happens and your brains fall out and you get the paper wrong, do all the wrong format, get all the wrong information and poorly write it up and then fail all your tests, because you studied all the wrong material or didn’t study at all, and skipped all my classes from here to the end of June all because you hoped your extra project ‘sure thing’ hedge fund would come to your rescue and fill the grade void. But, surprise, surprise, you still end up failing.  In economics that’s called moral hazard where you are responsible for the outcome of your decisions, you could lose your invested grades or your invested money. That being so, you probably try not to make these bad decisions right?”

Nods all around.

“Okay, but, what if you were so confident and went right ahead and made these bad decisions anyway, would you expect a Principal's bailout for your bad decisions so you could at least get 50%, your high school diploma and get a half decent job even though you screwed it all up? And you are walking the stage at grad because of this bailout, feeling big and important, and walk with the others who worked hard and risked carefully?  Would they think you deserved it? Would they think that their own work has been cheapened by this?”

They were shocked at my inferences to their morality even though there were a few who very vigorously nodded affirmatively, the ones who made the right decisions, sacrificed, worked hard and rightly earned their grades and diploma.


Later I analysed this further...

It had all made me laugh like crazy BUT it also made me see that perhaps this pervasive form of 'Let the market decide' philosophy in our society over the past 30 years still requires the hope and glimmer of humanism and a socialistic way out of the moral dilemma of personal responsibility for everything one does, especially when it turns out badly. People who screw up hope to receive clemency from the rest of us, and we generally have done so leading to the expectation of this occurring and the negation of moral hazard as a natural consequence of poor decision making.

This all melds quite nicely with cost benefit analysis, comparative advantage, and welfare grades.  Its no wonder our kids are such good consumers of education.  They don't learn much, and I don't mean that in a negative sense - they REALLY don't learn much as electronic devices have all the content required, but they sure consume, consume and consume some more.  For example, I ran a quick test in my grade 12 class and asked quickly of random students what mark they got in various subjects in grade 9. Most knew in an instant. I then asked who was the first Prime Minister, some answered, most didn't. Who was the second? Who was the one before the current one? I asked questions relating to their grade 9 curriculum. They were stumped. The content is secondary to the grade and so what was learned as content was only temporary, needed for only as long as it took to write the final exam, the mark was the dividend and of real value and something to be remembered. It somewhat goes to prove that they go to school for the marks economy, not for the content involved. What IS important is the process of acquiring grades, the how to learn, the how to gain grades, takes precedence over what was learned, the dreaded content. The kids do know how to DO process, they look toward leaders (teachers mostly) to tell them what to do, blast through worksheets or assignment questions from the book, usually by just copying and pasting the answer without much deep thinking or struggle. Indeed, there is no struggle on their part, the information as facts is given to them, the questions to think about as well and in many cases the answers partially uncovered to make it easier for them to ‘discover’. And to make matters worse students were given grades at every step, leading them in the end to demand the grade no matter what. This leads to the comments of the knowledge based educated people, "Today's kids don't know anything, and if left alone to figure it out just sit there until someone shows them, and still they expect to get paid for the time they spent unproductively just sitting there."

The notion of education as a ‘business’ with the parents as ‘clients’ and their children as the ‘widgets’ to be buffed, shined and pushed out the door ready for the real world has done mighty damage to our society as well as the expectations of parents and students. Teachers are constantly viewed as industrial workers, not the highly educated and dedicated people that they are. Principals of schools are no longer master teachers but rather building and personnel managers with responsibilities not of fostering an environment of good teaching and learning but rather of efficiency and accountability. School based management with ever shrinking funding leads to stresses and strains on a public social institution that has the same expectations as a private business. Public institutions cannot be held to the same standard as a private business. In fact, the public institution, particularly that of public education, has a higher moral and ethical standard than that of private business and to have brought it down to that same level has led to no end of problems. It is the greatest error and calamity to have hit public education since its inception and nothing will be better, not student achievement nor teacher practice, until this is finally understood and dealt with.