Posts Tagged 'Regulation'

The Racket of Education


The government doesn’t do a great job of educating our children, mostly because there is inherently some level of corruption, and people and organizations think they need (more) money to do the great work. So it all ends up gamed, and the blame diffused. There’s a lot of good, mind you. I’m not advocating tearing it all down. But we do need to learn to see through the B.S. and maintain accountability.

The Show versus Reality: For the most part teachers are evaluated primarily on observation and test scores. For the first few years performance is evaluated by an administrator who comes into into classroom to watch. It happens about two or three times a year, and they generally know when it’s going to happen because either the admin team wants to be sure the administrator is there on a day and time that makes sense for getting the evaluation done (not wasting his or her time) or simply to give the teacher a chance to shave up the dogs and ponies as a favor. I don’t mean to imply that all teachers get a pass all the time. The principle usually figures out who the good and bad ones are, but this process, which could be instrumental, is only incidental toward that end. It lets them put the right things on a checklist, and takes the pressure off of them to take significant action that would otherwise be warranted.

Standardized testing is a measure that’s semi-objective, at least on the surface, but is fraught with its own problems. One of the big ones is that many teachers will teach to what they believe the test is, rather than to the overall betterment of the student. It makes the teacher look better, and again removes the burden for anyone to take more difficult action.

The other concern is establishing what the standards should be that are tested. This process is inherently filled with bias, whether cultural, demographic, religious or otherwise. “Standard” by definition ignores the individual. How much of this makes sense is debated. One problem I see everywhere that I’ve spent years talking about in this blog is how programmed we all have become. We’re made to think and act in certain ways so as to more easily fit or conform to society and be good workers. Of course, this mindset comes from a time when we needed people to show up for work every day and be good, consistent, quiet workers who don’t upset the way things are done or challenge anyone or anything. To conform. These days we struggle because the world has moved on, and this deeply ingrained training no longer serves us. We can’t figure out what to do. Schools have been very slow to respond to these changes.

Principals and superintendents shave the dogs and ponies for their shows as well. Schools and districts are compelled by honors and accolades from various sources. From Lighthouse Schools to National Board Certification for teachers to publisher rankings to accrediting agencies, school leaders are compelled to score high. Competition is good and it makes us better, but the problem here is that schools are going through the motions. While accolades from publishers or high scores from accrediting agencies seem great, they’re merely snapshots. If you look good that day or that week, by teaching something that will impress them (in spite of what lesson really should be taught in the context of the course material), it creates a perception that’s not reality.

You may have heard of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which in many ways is an organization that tries to help. Teachers who receive NBPTS accreditation have done good work and have done a LOT of work. I’m sure many people have been through the process and found it to be incredibly effective and rewarding. However, some get the certification and the promised increase in pay only until the next time the state decides budgets need to be cut. The state got the appearance they were looking for and moved on.

It’s not just firms like NBPTS that cash in on education. Publishing companies write textbooks specifically for large districts or large states. We’re talking big money here. Once books are adopted, many firms have a leg up on their competition. Textbook adoption is usually a district level decision. I’m not going all the way down this rabbit hole here because this one topic is covered quite a bit elsewhere, and one would truly have to have her head in the sand to not have an inkling of how gamed it all is, but suffice to say that the values of a few in power impact the many in unusually profound ways given how few controls there are in place to manage the merits of texts. It reminds me of the phrase, “History is written by the conquerers.”

Software developers also benefit from this situation. Schools are eager to adopt a new program or system to manage grades or attendance or all sorts of student data with only a cursory review. Sure, they talk a good game: peer review, teacher and parent consultation, blah, blah, blah. What it often amounts to is a five or six person panel calling the shot for the whole district.

None of this compares to the accrediting boondoggle. These are for profit companies hired to manage…accreditations. Their agenda is to produce sales. Each time the accrediting agencies show up, the school puts on a nice show and blows a nice chunk of change on wooing them. They usually don’t even eat or spend time with students. Teachers, have you ever seen anyone from an accrediting agency so much as eating in the same cafeteria with the students?

Then there is the Cool Stuff Arms Race. Interactive white boards that barely can be kept working, or are so difficult to use they end up wasting more time than they are worth. Never mind that the school asks teachers to be careful about using it because the bulbs are expensive!  iPods (not pads, “pods,” the music players) were rolled out at many schools a number of years ago. Hardly used. Eventually dropped. Districts don’t seem to understand what it takes to feed and clothe these technological wonders they bring home. Each school seems to have its own handful of things, but the teachers are rarely consulted about what they need, and once they have (what they don’t need) they struggle with a less than fully trained IT staff to keep it running. It ends up being not worth the effort, and traditional means are often used, which in most cases work just fine anyway. It’s all up to whether the teacher is committed and good at it, not so much the technological pyrotechnics involved. Cool new stuff keeps getting added to look good to parents, the media, and accrediting agencies.

This is not to say it is all bad. Good schools do well overall. It’s just frustrating to watch the massive amounts of waste in the process. Waste that results in no money for things that matter. Like the teachers. They are treated like the same commodity pens and paper are in a lot of ways. We try to build a structure that forces them into a paradigm that some idealistic administrator visioned without really understanding that it’s nearly impossible to manage that type of human interaction so systemically. (The medical profession, by the way, suffers from the same thing.) Instead, we should be taking every possible step to build the competency of the teachers, and then paying them accordingly so that once they become brilliant and skilled, they will actually want to remain in the profession, rather than going out to get a real job where they can earn a professional living.

Nobody wants to pay more taxes, and it really shouldn’t take more, but the reality is it probably will. Government is horribly inefficient, but it’s the best thing we have. Until people get serious about (first) understanding what education is needed for kids and then (second) demanding it, I doubt things will change significantly anytime soon.

Meanwhile, how do you know if your kids’ teachers are doing a good job and the district is a good one? You can start by asking your kids and watching what’s going on with their scores on standardized tests. Look deeper. Ask your kids’ teachers what the kids are supposed to learn and ask the kids about those topics. Talk to your kids about the content of their courses. If you’re kids’ teachers are worth their pay, they’ll be glad you did. There’s no substitute for being an involved parent. Not an overbearing, annoying one. But one whose head is in the game paying attention, and talking with the teachers.

Some take this to the extreme of homeschooling. In some situations this may be a viable alternative, and I absolutely applaud folks who can do it, but I expect there are precious few qualified to teach their kids AP subjects in multiple disciplines. Private schooling can be a good answer answer. Certainly many of the inefficiencies and half-baked decisions are minimized, not to mention the elimination of the grindingly slow pace of any kind of change in any governmental body such as eduction. The good private schools can’t game their reputations as easily because they are accountable for what happens to the kids once they leave because they are populated by kids whose parents have resources and talk to each other in the community, not to mention many of them knowing themselves from experience what a good education looks like. But that’s the elite. Below that, it’s still going to require diligent parenting to ensure success.

Hands on. No escaping that. Look past the BS for reality.




The Marketing Drug


Every time I see my dentist he tries to sell me stuff. Various services they provide that will in some way (they claim) improve my life by addressing some shortcoming or concern taking place in my mouth. I never knew my mouth had so many problems!

I’m all for selling people on things that can help them take care, even if they are merely for pleasure or aesthetics (vanity), but like everything else, there can be a tipping point where we sometimes take it too far, or are too manipulative.

It reminds me of how food is marketed. The marketing has become so powerful that some of the people being hurt actually are eager for it to continue. This creates a cultural feedback loop, where some aspire to have these respected marketing jobs, to do more marketing of similar items. It creates a society where the owners and leaders of these companies are celebrated as risk-taking, brave businesspeople, not as the modern robber barons that they’ve become.

The cultural feedback loop can’t be denied. The NAACP, which represents a population that is disproportionately impacted by the health costs these products create is actually allied with marketers in the fight to sell ever more and bigger portions to its constituents.

The crime continues because the money taken by corporations that change our culture is used to fund campaigns that conflate the essential concept of ‘freedom’ with the not-clearly-articulated ‘right’ to respond to marketing and consume stuff in quantities that would have been considered literally insane just three generations ago. And we like it.

[I’ll write the previous paragraph’s point again here to be clear: we’ve decided that consumers ought to have the right be manipulated by marketers. So manipulated that we sacrifice our long-term health in the face of its power.]

We ban accounting that misleads, and we don’t let engineers build bridges that endanger travelers. We monitor effluent for chemicals that can kill us as well. There’s no reason in the world that market-share-fueled marketing ought to be celebrated merely because we enjoy the short-term effects it creates in the moment. Every profession we respect has limits created and enforced by society. These rules make it more likely we don’t race to the bottom as we cut those corners or maximize our profits.

The question is this: are you responsible for the power in your hands? If so, then we need to own the results of our work. If not, someone else needs to step in before it’s too late. No sustainable system can grant power without responsibility.

Just because marketing works doesn’t mean we have an obligation to do it. And if we’re too greedy to stop on our own, then yes, we should be stopped.

And don’t even get me started on the marketing of drugs. The pharmaceutical complex is as out of control as anything humanity has ever witnessed. It’s capitalism, and the battle is to win. At all costs.


Power to the People?

34 years ago today the chartkillspeopleworld changed in a way that isn’t as spectacular or as talked about as some of the major tragedies or accomplishments as they are often portrayed in the drama hungry media.

On August 5th, 1981 Ronald Reagan ushered in a mindset that mass layoffs were acceptable with the firing of over 10,000 employees during the air traffic controllers strike. He also banned the workers from returning to the profession for the rest of their lives!

The merits of their arguments and the various points of view have been debated. It should not be forgotten that the strike itself was illegal, as mandated by the sometimes controversial Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which prohibits any labor strike that can cause unfair harm to those not involved or negatively affect general welfare and commerce. The union leader at the time has gone on record since, acknowledging that they botched it, were too arrogant, and didn’t understand a lot of the underlying politics, not to mention the power of spinning public opinion in one’s favor (or not).

Up to this time it was not common to use mass layoffs to handle strikes. This incident eased those inhibitions significantly. Reagan broke the union (it should be noted that the union that eventually replaced it got most of the demands the fired employees were asking for), and in a way galvanized a growing mindset that unions were too powerful and not in the best interests of the economy overall. While Reagan may have been ‘right’ in some ways, and was viewed as effective in quickly restoring order to a situation that was getting out of control, the message that was taken has had some dire long term consequences.

We often don’t/can’t know the consequences of perturbing a system, especially one as complex as the economy with the various complications of the corporations and the workforce driving it. Reagan’s actions communicated from on high that it was acceptable to use swift and massive layoffs to help guard against a short-term economic disruption. Though he never intended it as such, there was now a precedence for protecting commerce before protecting people. Social conventions that had restrained CEO’s from doing something many would have liked to do were disrupted. Not surprisingly some began to take advantage of this tacit permission to take such dramatic action affecting the lives of so many. It became gradually more and more common for workers to be viewed simply as assets and liabilities on a spread sheet, with the math at the bottom supporting their actions to make the numbers for a quarter in efforts to appease stockholders and justify, if only in the short term, the CEO’s position to the board.

Protecting the money eventually became a clear imperative over protecting the people. The very concept of putting a number or resource before a person flies in the face of the protection our anthropology says leaders (alphas) are supposed to offer. It’s kind of like a parent putting the care of the car a child rides in before the actual care of the child. On the surface it may appear to make sense sometimes, but our biology knows better.

Now we much more commonly see leaders, whether CEO’s, politicians, record labels, news organizations, or bankers betray the trust of the very people they are supposed to be serving, often by allowing outside, unengaged constituents to have too much influence over decisions and actions, all in the interest of short term gains and the almighty dollar. When people are lower down the priority list they are less able to operate from a secure position and do the really great work. They are more prone to operate from a position of fear and insecurity, which leads to more focus on the short term protection derived from looking good than the profound work that will make the big difference. Differentiation and innovation give way to commoditization, which ironically spells trouble in the long run.

Contrary to what many would say these days, or at least contrary to where their actions take us, the power, or at least the care, needs to be in the hands of the people, and they need to be provided with an environment where humanity and social relations and the accompanying support they provide can prevail. If we listen to our biology, which at this point in time is what it is, we can cultivate environments that take advantage of our core strengths as social animals. At the most practical level, companies who bring a better value to the table will do better in the long run, and studies have shown that companies with more rigorous financial scrutiny tend to have fewer patents, and the ones they have are generally less profound. Give the people the leadership and security to do their best work and the results will come in time.

Or the few who forge their way to power can try to protect it and hang on at all costs, with all of the stresses and difficulties running rampant in our culture today.

There is a better way.


What actually is it?

I have often defined it in the context of its distinction from ethics. Morality is characterized by the beliefs one holds that are no longer (or may never have been) open to interpretation or discussion. Absolute rights and wrongs.

This definition doesn’t function all that well in practice because there are numerous moral beliefs we betray on a regular, conditional basis. We would think it immoral to lie – it is wrong – but can easily devise a circumstance in which most would say it is okay to do so.

Is morality determined by majority?

In a way, yes, especially for society. But here is our first rub. Society is cultural. Subjective. It evolves throughout our lives. Not absolute, which seems to fly in the face of how we believe in morality (that it’s a fixed thing people (should) have). In both individuals and polity experience (the accumulation of information and wisdom) informs our ideas about morality.

The impetus for morality is a universal truth. But what truth? How’s this?

That which increases human dignity is good.  That which depresses it is bad.

Sounds nice. Still subjective. Just can’t run from the fact that we define it through our experiences and perceptions. We perceive humanity through our interpretation of “our kind.” Complications enter the equation when we tighten our circle of “our kind” and cease listening to our empathy due to what we falsely (and sometimes rightly) perceive as threats to “our kind”.  But on the whole, we as a civilization have expanded the ring of morality to include more and more protections for people, rather than reduce it (with notable exceptions).


Our perceptions of what is and isn’t moral have changed on things like gender equality, religious rights, racial equality, human sexuality, child rights, environmental protection, animal rights, etc.  250 years ago, it wasn’t ‘unethical’ for a husband to bend his wife over his knee and spank her. We might — from an absolutist perspective — like to look back and say, “No. That was always wrong.” But you’d have an argument on your hand from many men in the U.S. back then on why God put the man at the head of the household and that disciplining his wife was not just his right, but his obligation. (You may find this hard to believe, but if you research it thoroughly you will find that it was normal. The exception would have been not doing it.)

We’re a mess, but we have evolved in this experiment known as humanity. Like individuals, every time we fall down and get back up, we tuck a new piece of information into our collective ken and move forward in the hopes of not doing that again.  For the most part we do an okay job of that. As Americans, we haven’t engaged in a systematic destruction of native civilizations, again. We have accepted that females are “endowed” with the same natural rights as males.  We understand now that protecting the environment carries value. We (almost everybody) believes that children do have rights that trump parental rights.

Those morals were non-existent 250, 500, 1,000 years ago. Are we saying that we’re just better than those people? Are we going to argue that it was “immoral” to not allow females to vote in elections back 200+ years ago?  It’s not so easy to apply these positions retroactively because our contemporary ideals aren’t just informed by what we feel, but by the very information we have access to (scientific, medical, experiential, etc.), and how that information has replaced other information (superstitions, religions, etc.), thus completely altering how we think about everything.  We have a completely different paradigm than those people did back then.

This has happened collectively, democratically. Some of it has been conscious (we vote: the government enforces an ethical ideal from the top down, those ideals trickle into the main population). Some of that has been unconscious, trickling upward from the population into our institutions. Either way, there’s a collective nature to how we debate, discuss and create morality in society.

It does change, but it’s not flexible, because usually once a “bell is rung” on an ethical issue, we now see (looking back) that it’s incredibly hard to “un-ring”.  So, in the case of female suffrage or even gay marriage, it’s patently obvious that these things — while seeing minor setbacks at times — aren’t being reversed.  So, it’s not so much about “well, whatever people decide is moral” and more about, “whatever polity exists, as it gains information on an issue and expands its moral perspective collectively, so too does it increase its moral code to include that thing.

This does highlight, however, that we (big WE) made it up. Or at least our interpretation of ‘truths’ and writings from the past change. Maybe there is some hope for us after all.

Not Gettin’ Rich

JonathaCheckMy friend Jonatha is a pretty well known artist with around 10 albums released on major labels over the years. I have lots of other friends in the music business. Their stories are pretty consistent.

No money.

The difference between now and 20 years ago is that now, nobody is making any money.

Spotify, and [fill in the blank with your music delivery service of choice] have utterly commoditized it all. The commoditization would be one thing if they paid a serviceable amount for the work they use to drive their business, but…they don’t, in part because there isn’t much to go around. Every artist I know tells the same story. I have sat through endless debates about why this happens. Much of it is warranted. The undeniable reality of the marketplace is that people don’t value music enough to pay for it anymore. Still a shame to see talented people go unrewarded. Teachers, artists, therapists, and others who help us in more abstract yet profound ways seem to get the shaft a lot. Good for us they love what they do. God help us if they ever wise up.

Bump the Spinning Plates

02-lFAqTMany of us feel like we have too much going on to keep up with it all. Truth is there is a lot of comfort in being busy all the time. We feel good about being involved in it all. Stuff is happening. That’s what life’s about, eh? It provides a license for us avoid.

Perturb that system and you create an opportunity to discover what’s really important, or what’s really wrong. When you allow things to crash and burn a few times you get some wisdom otherwise missed by being trapped in the self-induced role of master plate spinner.

Want to Have to

havetodoWhat do we really have to do?

Non-obvious actions taken in pivotal moments, difficult decisions that might be easier to avoid, responses instead of reactions, and most of all, the choices we make when it doesn’t even seem like we have a choice – all of these, taken together, define who we are and the impact we make.

“I had no choice,” actually means, “I had only one path that seemed easy enough in the moment.”

The agenda we invent and act on defines our organizations, our work, and the people we choose to become. It is born out of a correlation between what we want and what we believe is possible – what we deserve.


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