“Stupid in America”

Check your FoxNews lineup and set your DVR to record John Stossel’s recent education special, Stupid in America.  If you know when it will next air, let me know and I’ll provide an update.

It originally aired last weekend.  I watched it tonight.  It’s worth watching.  He covers teachers unions, union bosses, firing teachers, the Washington DC school district, charter schools and Khan Academy.

In an interview, one union boss, who represented a district with bad student test scores, assured us that he knows his kids are learning because “he can see it in their eyes.”  Now that’s compelling stuff.  I certainly think there are numerous issues with test scores as a measure of teacher performance, but I much prefer those over what this man sees in his students eyes.

This same union leader defended bad teachers from being fired (I’m paraphrasing): It would be a tremendous cost and a major adjustment for the teacher. We need to seek professional development opportunities for that teacher.

lol?  I did.

I find it strange that we should have to train teachers to be teachers (isn’t that what they were supposed to do before they became a teacher?) to prevent them from not being a teacher. I also find it strange how a trade that’s based so strictly on credentialing (e.g. education certification), would then want to take on the expense of the training the teacher what he or she apparently didn’t learn before.  With that logic, why require credentials at all?  Just let anyone come in and they will be trained.

Of course, this union boss believes training will be the antidote.  What if the teacher doesn’t want to teach?  Why not free up the spot for someone who does?

Another union boss proclaimed that he would try to physically prevent people from going to charter schools in “our” (meaning teacher union) buildings.  Excuse me, aren’t those the taxpayers’ buildings? I didn’t realize that the teachers union now owns their buildings as well.

As Stossel so aptly put it in the show, much of what is wrong with education is that we have “adult fools” running things.

Stossel also showed lots of signs of progress education.

  • Charter schools where the kids love to come and learn.
  • Kids digging math because they’re watching Salman Khan videos.
  • Teachers in charter schools that say things like (paraphrasing again), why shouldn’t they be able to fire me?  If I was a bad doctor, I wouldn’t have any patients.
  • A charter school where the principal actively watches and coaches her teachers to improve their teaching (many businesses can learn from this).
  • A post-Katrina, charter school-based rebirth of education in New Orleans.  One founder of the Sci Academy started with just himself in 2008 and now has a “school” based in trailers and his students are testing well.  He said, if you hear someone in education talking about having top notch facilities, that’s a sign they’re not putting education first.

How’s your ‘adaptive efficiency’?

I’m two-thirds of the way through Arnold Kling’s and Nick Schulz’s book From Poverty to Prosperity and I highly recommend it.  The authors’ prose is crystal clear and for each of their concepts they include the dialogue of interviews with folks who were key in discovering or developing the idea, which I find extremely useful and interesting.

One such interview is with Douglas North, 1993 winner of the Nobel in economics.  In it, North describes what is meant by adaptive efficiency.  It’s worth understanding.

The idea is that the world is changing and (p. 158):

…since you don’t know which way the world is changing and you don’t know what’s right or what’s wrong with these things, one characteristic of adaptive efficiency is that you must permit lots of trials and errors in the world.  That means you encourage institutions that allow people to make mistakes, that allow them to try new ideas, and you encourage the destruction of institutions that don’t work, because one of the problems with organizations that are created by institutions is that they tend to create vested interests and then you can’t get rid of them.

I think this captures the key to a long-running, successful organization.  Organizations that allow the vested interests to block trial and error adaptation will eventually lose out to organizations that encourage it.

A few pages later, North makes a parallel observation in regards to individuals (p. 163):

We should be very tentative about how we understand the world.  That doesn’t mean you don’t do things. You’ve got to do things, but you’ve got to recognize you may be wrong. We don’t know enough.  And so it’s terribly important to recognize that you can be wrong, and to be, therefore, very susceptible to modifying the theories you hold in the light of new evidence.

Now as I said, that doesn’t mean you don’t do anything; you’ve got to do things.  It does mean that you’re willing to be adaptively efficient [in the face of] change and to rethink the problems as you evolve.

These passages are similar to advice from Felix Dennis that I’ve posted about previously.  Be persistent, but not to the point of being stubborn.  If something’s not working, realize it, drop it and move to the next thing (persistence), don’t keep doing the same thing over and over again (stubbornness).

These passages also made me think of two norms built into our mental models that resist change for the better.

One norm is the belief that failure is bad.  The other is that we don’t like to be wrong.

Both norms are tied into our individual pride and self-esteem and I believe they are reinforced from an early age and may be at the very heart of what is wrong with our education system.

This also reminds me of Salman Khan’s statements about learning in this post.  Folks master bicycle riding because the “institutions” (or our beliefs) around bicycle riding encourages trial and error (“if you fall down, get back on and try again”) and expects mastery.  But with math and reading, our “institutions” (education system) penalizes trial and error and failure, but does not expect mastery.

How are you raising your kids?  Do you encourage them to experiment and that it’s okay to be wrong or to fail?  As a father, I know that’s tough.  You naturally want to see your kids succeed and you definitely don’t want them to experiment and fail with stupid stuff like irresponsible behavior (though facing the consequences of such behavior usually inspires some quality learning).  But, maybe we should give them a little more leeway to experiment and fail in productive pursuits.

How’s the adaptive efficiency in the organizations that you are a part of?  It’s not good with mine.  There’s an abundance of folks that believe they need to get it right the first time, and are often disappointed when they don’t.  There’s also an abundance of folks that seem to try the same things over again even when past experience gives plenty of clues that it will not be successful.

I will post more from the Kling and Schulz book in future posts.


Here’s a nice article on failure on the Harvard Business Review website, called The Missing Market for Failure by Joshua Gans (thanks to Tim Harford‘s tweet).

I’m not sure a market for failure is nearly as important as simply gaining a better understanding that failure is necessary and normal and is not bad.

We live in a trial-and-error world.  We really don’t know if something will work until we try. It’s disappointing that we stigmatize failure so.

I think this goes back to Salman Khan’s insights on education in this post.   In school, we punish experimentation and failure.  I agree. That’s where the negative stigma on failure starts.  If you don’t ace a test at a specific snapshot in time, you’re deemed “slow kid” as Khan points out.

I’ve seen enough things that I thought would fail prove me wrong.  Enough so, that I try to keep an open mind and realize that what I think doesn’t matter much.  What matters is if it really works or not.

Even with the things that don’t work, I often find that the reasons for failure were reasons that nobody guessed upfront and we all learned valuable lessons in the process of trying.

We often look at successful people and assume they have a perfect record.  But that’s a rare (if non-existent) case.  What differentiates them the most from you and I is an ability to accept failure, learn from it, brush it off, laugh at it and move onto the next thing.

They don’t let it define them.  They treat failure as a feedback, plain and simple.

Alternative Education

Thanks to Forbes magazine’s The Names We Need to Know in 2011 for bringing the Khan Academy to my attention.  From the Forbes article (emphasis added):

Salman Khan was a hedge fund analyst educated at MIT and living in Boston in the summer of 2004. The job was okay but he so much more enjoyed recording Web videos to tutor his younger cousins in New Orleans in math and science. Other people started asking him for tutoring help so started putting math videos up on YouTube. He’d put 70 videos up in a row on algebra, geometry and calculus. Soon a lot of people started watching  the Khan Academy

Since Khan started putting videos up, his Khan Academy videos have been watched 24 million times. You Tube told him he has the most popular open-course video library on its site, with more views than MIT, Stanford or UC-Berkeley. Khan has produced 1,600 videos so far, all simple 8- to 20 minute takes on subjects such as torque, ebitda, debt loops, probability, exchange rates, the Paulson bailout, binomials and the battle of Trafalgar.

Sal Khan at Gel 2010 (founder, the Khan Academy) from Gel Conference on Vimeo.

The video of Mr. Khan presenting at the Gel conference was worth 20 minutes.

Here are some of my thoughts:

If true, it’s amazing that this one person has more people watching videos than MIT, Stanford or UC-Berkeley.  But, applying my analytic mind it could be that his videos target a wider audience.  Even so, it’s still a commendable accomplishment.

Khan’s relative success also could be evidence of a few things:

  • Repackaging the same product (lectures) for a different distribution channel (youtube) isn’t as effective as a format tailored specifically for the distribution channel.
  • Folks don’t attend MIT, Stanford and UC-Berkeley just learn specific skills, but also for the social affiliations (value proposition).
  • Folks on youtube go to Khan Academy to learn specific skills and not so much for the social affiliations (value proposition).

In the Gel video, Khan explains how he started by recording videos to tutor his cousins and it seemed to work for them.  He accidentally stumbled upon his tutorial format and it seems to work better for his students than other formats.   That’s a black swan.  A relatively cheap one at that.

I particularly like the reason his voice, not his image, appears on his tutorials.  When he started, he didn’t have a camera and that worked well for his cousins (market testing).  From that accidental experiment emerged the knowledge that not showing the tutor made it easier to learn.

While watching Khan’s video, I thought about the debate on paying teachers based on performance.  When folks discuss whether pay for performance would produce higher quality education, they tend to assume that the people who would teach under pay for performance would be the same people who teach today.  Then they cannot imagine how pay for performance could motivate these same teachers to do better.

They fail to consider that pay for performance might draw other people into the profession.  Khan is a good example.  He initially chose to be a hedge fund analyst because it paid better, even though he liked teaching.

Khan found an innovative, productive and far-reaching path into teaching.  Which brings up another point, he doesn’t appear to have teaching credentials, though I could be wrong about that (I didn’t research that thoroughly).  I think credentials are an unnecessary barrier to becoming a teacher, a barrier that benefits holders of those credentials more than students.

I don’t think the Khan Academy will replace schools just yet (but after hearing the last letter Khan read in the Gel video, I’m not so sure).  The Academy already appears to be a great supplemental resource.  It could further evolve into a better alternative for education and others might choose to get in the game with different variations that will be even more successful.  Perhaps large swaths of secondary and college course work could be commoditized.

I will be interested to see what emerges.  It seems promising.   I might even try producing something similar with some of my topics of interest.

In the meantime, I have a few Khan tutorials I plan to watch.