Are Sweden’s For-Profit Voucher-Funded Schools that Promote Creativity the Future of Learning?

Good Magazine has a nice profile of for-profit chain Vittra’s newest school, with the headline “Is Sweden’s Classroom-Free School the Future of Learning?”

The article concludes,

The open nature of the campus and the unusual furniture arrangements reflect the school’s philosophy that “children play and learn on the basis of their needs, curiosity, and inclination.” That’s true for kids all over the world, so let’s hope educators in other countries begin to pay attention.


What they don’t mention is that Sweden has had state-funded school choice since 1992 that allows for-profit companies to create and manage schools.  Vittra, for instance, is 100% owned by Bure Equity, an investment company with investments in communications, textiles, training, and education.

Imagine the uproar if school choice advocates in the U.S. claimed that we should allow private equity firms to create and run schools using government funds in order to allow for educational options that were more creative?  Any school choice advocate crazy enough to make such a claim would be ridiculed on both the right and the left.  And yet truth is often stranger than fiction, and precisely such an outcome has taken place as a result of school choice in Sweden.

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The Conscious Creation of Culture as the Goal of Education

I live in a world that is so normal to me that I forget that even most educated people don’t live in this world.  I rarely watch television:  I don’t watch sports, news, political debates or campaigns, advertising, celebrity gossip, or reality shows.  I do flip through channels occasionally when I am in a hotel and discover that all of the hundreds of channels in multiple languages are pretty much the same, and turn it off.  Although I watch news headlines and read articles on content that interests me, I’m not saturated in the emotional, visceral content that is transmitted over televisions.  I’m always shocked when decent people expose their children to hours of broadcast television per day; for me it is almost as shocking as if the family was injecting heroin into their veins together at dinner time, and yet most American families seem to live this way (averaging 3-4 hours per day).

With all schools and all parents my first recommendation is to limit electronic addictions (tv, video games, computer games, gameboys, ipods, Facebook, cell phones, etc. – as they say in the plane, anything with an on/off switch).  In addition, of course, healthy diet, exercise, and plenty of sleep.  Before we can begin to create a conscious culture we need to have functional bodies, minds, and spirits.

From there it is actually quite simple:  Let’s be conscious of our interactions with each other, what we intend, how we act, and what the impact of our actions are on others.  The very first step is for adults to model this behavior.  When I’m leading a group of young people in a Socratic discussion, I am acutely tuned in not only to the intellectual content, but also to the social/emotional/spiritual aspects of the interactions – this is why I am so vibrantly alive while leading such conversations.  Conversely, teachers who are emotionally reactive are not, on balance, good teachers (I once recommended to a school director that he fire a teacher because, although she had won awards, and was conscientious, prepared, and talented in many ways, she was emotionally reactive, bursting out angrily at students, despite years of coaching by the director in an attempt to eliminate the behavior).

Once we adults are in control of our own behavior and are capable of perceiving the state of the children around us, the next step is to work to orchestrate the environment, the behavior, and the awareness of the children so as to increase the extent to which the children themselves are capable of being conscious of their own behavior on others.  This is a sophisticated process that I can’t elaborate here; that said clearly Montessori, Waldorf, Reggio Emilio, and my Socratic Practice are all in different ways educational practices in which such an intention, to consciously create a better culture, exists.

At some schools it is more successful and at others less.  Doing it well requires real mastery at the classroom level and, for a school as a whole to do it well, real mastery at the level of the school leader.  Creating a conscious culture successfully both in classrooms and at schools is one of the great undeveloped art forms of humanity.

Because most people have not observed such an art form in practice, many are skeptical that it exists.  I will not try to persuade them here that it does.  But hypothetically anyone should be able to understand how as an adult, and even more so as a child, we are formed by every act of attention or inattention that is given to us.  Each time someone speaks to us or doesn’t speak to us; each time the glance at us or don’t glance at us; each time they touch us or they don’t touch us; and so on.

Observe yourself in a room full of people and note the impact you feel when people laugh at your jokes, or don’t; when they appear interested in you, or aren’t; when they ask you questions about your life, or don’t, and so forth.  Or consider the impact on your confidence as a risk taker when you try to do something a bit different and you are laughed at; or shamed; or ignored; or attacked.

It is a simple truism that although we are born with genetic predispositions, we are also powerfully formed by the thousands of interactions, subtle and gross, that we have with each other in the world every day.  I think it should not be controversial to suggest that most children do not find that their capacities are optimally nurtured by their environment from birth through adulthood.

But suppose, hypothetically, that it is possible for groups of adults to learn how to improve the human-to-human environment that they provide to children as well as the human-to-human environment that the children provide to each other.  Suppose children who attended these schools had a moment-to-moment experience that was dramatically better for them in every human dimension than is the moment-to-moment experience at their previous schools.  Parents would perceive that their children were happier and healthier.  As the children became adolescents, parents would perceive them to be more confident, more mature human beings who made better decisions than did their peers.

Presumably, if parents were free to identify the best schools for their children, many mothers, in particular, would send their children to these schools.  If these schools also provided excellent academics, then many fathers would support the children going to these schools (Sorry about the stereotypes, but having interviewed many hundreds of prospective parents for such schools, the mothers almost always find the more human environment very appealing, and the fathers are almost always concerned that this not come at the expense of the academics).

The IT revolution occurred because of many hundreds of thousands of technological innovations.  The vast majority of them were tweaks to previous technologies rather than fundamental breakthroughs.  We enjoy the fruits of technology today in part due to the breakthroughs of a few geniuses but also due to the invisible and unsung work of many thousands of engineers working to deadline to make this or that tiny component a bit better than that of the competitors.

Ideally we would have a steadily growing education industry in which millions of educators worked for competing visionary companies, each of which was trying to produce an ever more optimal environment for human development – physically, socially, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually, for the next generation of young human beings.  In such a world, millions of increasingly conscious educators would become ever more sophisticated artists creating ever more subtle symphonies of behaviors that resulted in new generations of healthier, happier human beings.

For me, the logic of this vision is so clear and compelling, whenever I see particular campaigns against television, obesity, bullying, addiction, consumerism, gang violence, rape and sexual abuse, etc. I always sympathize with the cause – and think that most of the time the proposed solutions will do relatively little to improve the situation.

But the creation of conscious cultures through educational innovation will.

Why don’t we get to work on a deep solution?

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Learnable Intelligence and Taking Refined Pedagogical Practices Seriously

I recently wrote Charles Manski regarding his article “Genes, Eyeglasses, and Social Policy,” in which he argues that regardless of the heritability of IQ, that fact is irrelevant to social policy, much as the heritability of genetic defects in vision tells us nothing about social policy with respect to sight.  Manski points out that there may be ways to compensate for inherited IQ defects much as eyeglasses compensate for inherited defects in vision.

Arnold Kling’s comment on Manski,

What I would counter is that high heritability of a trait may not tell us the effectiveness of treatments that have yet to be discovered. However, it does tell us that the existing treatments in a population make little difference.

I explained to Manski that one reason why people like Kling rightly note that “existing treatments in a population make little difference” is because we have not allowed great educators to create brand name educational chains with their own training programs to come into being.  I cited my own experience as a Socratic educator who has increased students’ intellectual abilities to explain my perspective.

Manski, to my great disappointment, merely acknowledged that he had heard good things  about Socratic education in Chicago Public Schools through his wife, a professor who consults there.  My immediate response is to cringe.

After writing my book The Habit of Thought:  From Socratic Seminars to Socratic Practice, I provided hundreds of Socratic in-service trainings to public school teachers across the U.S.  Although the gigs were well-paid (typically $1500 – 2000 per day), I soon realized that because I had no control over quality, I was often doing the students a disservice.  The problem with Socratic Seminars is that they very easily degenerate into worthless bull sessions with essentially no pedagogical value.  If the teacher is not adequately intelligent and if the teacher is not adequately trained, the entire experience tends to be worthless.  Thus although this was by far the most lucrative career path open to me at the time, and several leading educational organizations encouraged me to create a Socratic consulting package for the mass public school market, which they would promote for me, my heart was not in it.  I would be just another educational consultant, making lots of money promoting yet another pedagogical fad.

I realized that all of the lofty claims that I made about my Socratic practice were true IF and ONLY IF I completely controlled the implementation:  I had to be able to hire, fire, promote, train, and evaluate the staff myself.  I had to be able to create a schedule that provided adequate time and I had to be able to create an appropriate curriculum.  If I was not able to do these things, then while occasionally a teacher would succeed in developing students’ intellectual skills, on balance most teachers would simply be wasting time on bull sessions.  (This is why I went into the business of starting schools – so that I could be responsible for the version of Socratic Practice that I advocated).

Since realizing just how vulnerable my pedagogical practices were to corrupt implementations, I’ve become a student of other pedagogies that require considerable training and control over the environment to succeed.  The most obvious ones are Montessori and Waldorf, which each require a dedicated teacher training program (typically a year long) as well as specified curriculum and school accreditation (a process which specifies many details).  But the need to create a system with adequate control over refined pedagogies is common.  A few other examples:

1.  High Tech High, a celebrated charter school in San Diego, began to replicate nationally but then stopped after discovering that they could not adequately control quality.  They then began an internal training program which allowed them to certify their own teachers, a unique privilege – they are the only school I’m aware of that is allowed to certified its own teachers (they had special connections in the high-end education establishment that helped them finagle that privilege).  They now have eleven schools in San Diego County, allowing them considerably more control over their program, especially given the fact that they now have their own teacher training program, than was the case when their ideas were simply being used to set up other schools across the country.

2.  Bert Kaufman and IMACS, after their program was pulled from public schools because it required too much training they set up a private for-profit after school program which they then franchised – until they realized it was too difficult to guarantee staff quality at satellite locations.

3.  Brent Cameron of Self Design, a sort of structured “unschooling” program with hundreds of virtual students under the control of carefully trained mentors.

4.  Reggio Emilia, the famous educational community in Italy, where they train their own staff internally and regard long-term participation in the community to be essential to understand the pedagogy.

Indeed, I would say that any time I find a great teacher who wants to disseminate what he or she does, they quickly realize that it takes time to train someone in a refined pedagogical practice.  Any written description of the practice misses the essence of the practice; all great pedagogical practices are based on thousands of moment-by-moment judgment calls.  When is one pushing a student too hard, and when not hard enough?  When should one open up a discovery process, and when should one search for closure?  When should one break a problem down into parts, vs. when should one shift a student’s attention to the big picture?  Etc. Etc. Etc.

We have not been able to scale great educational practices because we do not have institutions that allow great educators to transmit their expertise. This is what I refer to as “The Missing Institution.”  Until and unless we allow more great educators to create institutions through which they can pass on their expertise, we will hear of occasional great educators and yet mediocre large scale results.

What most non-educators conclude from the fact of great educators combined with mediocre large scale results is that great teaching ability is rare, and because the average teacher will never be able to replicate the results of great teachers, we need to lower our expectations of what can be achieved through education.  Many people on both the left and right have basically given up on the transformative power of education; the conventional wisdom today is that education really can’t make much of a difference in the lives of children.

But consider how bizarre and outrageous our system of teacher training is:  Pedagogy is arguably the most important complex performance art there is, and yet it is a performance art for which we have no system for transmitting expertise.  Professors of education are hired and promoted almost exclusively based on their ability to publish academic papers.  Some are statisticians, some are theorists, some are historians.  But almost none of them are great practitioners of the art of pedagogy.  Pedagogical ability with K-12 students is not a factor in obtaining tenure as a professor of education.

While music professors are typically scholars and occasionally also musicians, in the realm of music we have multiple pathways in which an aspiring musician can learn from other performance artists.  Because everyone recognizes that performing ability is the sine qua non of musicianship, everyone knows that in order to be a great musician one needs to study with a great teacher – i.e., someone who is known to be capable of coaching great performances.

Imagine if, instead, all students were required to take music – but by law they were required to study with teachers who had passed a series of academic courses on music but who may or may not have actually performed music themselves.  Indeed, because there was no pressure to have learned how to perform music, the vast majority of teachers would simply be those who jumped through the necessary academic coursework to obtain the secure job of teaching music, and because of this gradually almost all real musicians would leave the field of music teaching.  Thus over time one would have created a system in which almost everyone who learned “music” would only have learned “music” from someone with absolutely no expertise in performing music.

Worse yet, imagine if we then required by law anyone who performed “music” in public to have first obtained a degree in “music.”  While occasionally there would still be a great musical performance, almost all actual performances would be wretched.  Most people would hate and ridicule “music” while acknowledging that occasionally it was worth listening to.  While there would be no market demand for such noise, perhaps PBS would show “musical” performances because they were believed to be a classical art.  Only nostalgic old people who were half tone deaf would bother listening.

And most people would conclude that it was not possible to transmit musical talent, that it was simply a rare genetic gift.  Indeed, in such a world, it is likely that the few individuals who were actually able to perform music that was even tolerably worth listening to would probably be those individuals with such an unusual genetic propensity for musical ability that they could pick up the signal from the noise, so to speak, even in such an atrocious system for transmitting musical ability.

This is exactly the system we’ve created in the world of K-12 education, for IQ and essentially all intellectual abilities, all emotional abilities, all human capacities.  The only exceptions are extracurricular activities, mostly sports and music, where real talent is still valued over academic credentials.

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Aligning Value Creation with Profitability Across Society

Most students of economics understand that one can more deeply align entrepreneurial value creation with environmental sustainability by ensuring that the costs of environmental degradation are internalized into the prices of products.  To take a simple example, because in most locations water users pay too little for water, aquifers around the world are being depleted more rapidly than they can be refilled.  All prices for products that use water from such aquifers (agriculture, golf courses, electricity production, etc.) are too low.  If governments charged enough water so that the aquifers were not being depleted, then the prices of all the goods being produced using that water would then be aligned with sustainable water usage practices.

As an educator I’ve often been concerned that the value that educators contribute is not reflected in the compensation they receive.  This notion is often reflected in the sentiment that “Teachers are underpaid.”

The more time that I’ve spend in the world of education, however, the more I would say that SOME educators are underpaid and SOME educators are massively overpaid.

Teachers should be paid only for the value that they add.  Insofar as there are multiple rationales for education, there may be multiple modes of value that they add.  Suppose, for instance, we were to suggest that education should:

1.  Increase the student’s capacity to earn an income as an adult.

2.  Increase the student’s capacity to live a happy, healthy, and meaningful life.

3.  Increase the student’s capacity to contribute positively to the lives of others as an adult.

If these are the goals, then teachers are valuable only insofar as, and in proportion to, they contribute to these goals (if people want to add other goals then the same rule applies).

But much of what currently passes for education does not succeed in adding much value by any of these metrics.  (Indeed, I think that much secondary education in inner city schools leaves people less capable at 18 than they were at 12).

How can we monetize valuable education?  How can we internalize the benefits provided by great educators?

Several strategies have occurred to me:

1.  Schools often determine local property values.  At some point we will see for-profit real estate developers partnering with for-profit educational chains that specialize in adding value to the communities.  Because the schools are adding value to the communities, the for-profit educational chains that are most successful at this will obtain ever growing premiums, and the educational program designers and the educators who work for these organizations will be paid increasingly large salaries.

2.  The incidence of almost all health issues (chronic diseases, addictions, most accidents, STDs, etc.) are highly dependent on lifestyle choices.  The CDC estimates that 75% of health care costs are due to chronic diseases alone; when one adds the full range of lifestyle choices, it is likely that 95% or more of health care costs are lifestyle dependent.  As educational chains develop that specialize in developing positive mental, emotional, and physical habits, it will become clear that the alumni of such schools will have much lower lifetime health care costs.  Likewise most crime is dependent on lifestyle choices.  And, finally, the well-being of family and relationships could be improved by better education.  Thus in a full-blown insurance market, those alumni of schools that brilliantly improved mental, emotional, and physical well-being, including reducing the incidence of criminal behavior and family dysfunction, the alumni of those schools would face extremely insurance premiums for health care, accidents, etc.  They would be sought after members of communities and sought after as partners.  If governments did not subsidize bad behavior, we would find that educators who were, in fact, successful at certifying good behavior would be increasingly sought after and valued.

3.  I would also be in favor of allowing educators to obtain a fraction of lifetime earnings of graduates.  There are many complex contracting issues that would need to be settled to ensure that the contracts were a win-win for both the students and the educators, but over time we would see contracts that allowed young people with particular gifts to have access to much higher quality training much earlier on if great educators were able to participate in the upside of the talented students.

The path that I am sketching is so radically different from the reality within which we live that few people can imagine the richly diverse world that could result.  Of course the path is tricky and there will be many mistakes along the way.  We must level the playing field so that various human pathologies are no longer subsidized by governments.  We must eliminate occupational licensing so that innovative educators can help the next generation become far more brilliant at teaching, healing, curing, counseling, advising, etc.

Ultimately we will see a world in which the largest corporations are lifestyle corporations that specialize in the creation of communities, including health, education, and welfare, in which human beings experience happiness and well-being beyond that which most of us can imagine.  At present capitalism is largely a materialistic set of enterprises focused on satisfying material needs, from food and lodging to yachts and sports cars.  The materialism of capitalism as we know it is not intrinsic to capitalism per se.  To some extent it is due to Maslow’s hierarchy; we needed to satisfy basic needs before we could work on satisfying higher level needs.

But now that many of us should be evolving towards self-actualization, the primary reason we are not climbing higher faster is due to the fact that essentially all of the industries that should be focused in deepening and improving human wellness – education, healthcare, and community formation – are dominated by government.  Governments are not and cannot become innovative, adaptive, creative, and responsive to individual human needs.  Capitalism is uniquely capable of responding brilliantly to every individual’s needs at the most granular level (some may respond righteously that capitalism responds to human needs “If they have the ability to pay.”  Fine, then let’s implement Citizen’s Dividends so that they can pay, but still we must let the entrepreneurs be free to innovate).

But in order to create paradise on earth, we need to allow capital to flow freely towards those entrepreneurs, and the individuals they hire, who are most capable of improving the human condition.  Those entrepreneurs need a level playing field in which they are free to experiment with new and better ways to educate, to heal, to improve wellness, to refine experience, and to create communities of meaning and purpose.  And we need to allow for free markets in education, insurance, health care, legal systems, and community formation in order to allow those educators who are truly brilliant at improving the human condition to reap the rewards due them.

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If We Had a Way to Increase IQ and Develop the Prefrontal Cortex of Inner City Youth Would We Implement It?

One of the founders of Montessori MadMen, a group of fathers who are passionate about promoting Montessori education, loved “The Creation of Conscious Culture through Educational Innovation” but was concerned that in an education market, the poor would be underserved:

I do want to say that while I found your manifesto persuasive, my natural liberal inclinations and skepticism continue to worry that the poor will continue to be underserved and that even in a true free market system, high quality learning environments and cultures will still be correlated with income and wealth. It is very easy to make high quality, low-cost consumer products available to virutally everyone in a modern society and the costs and consequences of innovation are increasingly low.

The first point to be made here is that the real comparison is not whether high quality learning environments and cultures will still be correlated with income and wealth; for the most part they probably will.  The real comparison to be made is whether or not the poor would be better off in an education market than they are now.  The answer to that is ABSOLUTELY and, under the right circumstances, much, much better off.

While there are diverse poor with diverse educational needs, here I’ll focus first on the urban underclass, arguably the greatest social challenge in the U.S.  Trillions of dollars have been spent on the “war on poverty” in the past fifty years and yet no significant progress has been made and by some metrics conditions have gotten worse.  Expenditures on K-12 public education have nearly tripled in the past forty years, and because of diverse programs focused specifically  on inner city schools, expenditures on inner city schools have probably more than tripled.  Is there any reason to believe that if we tripled expenditures again the results would be any better?

A friend of mine was in charge of a $10 million grant to Timken High School in Canton, Ohio, awarded in 1997.  Timken is a rust-belt urban school that is about 50% minority.  It is a relatively small urban school, with just around 1300 students.  The student teacher ratio is 13:1, unusually small.  At the time it was the largest philanthropic grant to a single school.  The conditions of the grant stipulated that it could not be spent on bricks and mortar:  It was to be strictly focused on improving instruction.

Although I have the highest respect for his work, he left after a couple of years, well before spending all of the funding.  He realized that although he could spend more than $100,000 per teacher on training, technology, new curricular materials, etc. he saw in advance it would not make a difference.  His specialty was Socratic Seminars, and he saw that no matter how much time and money he spent training these teachers, they would not be interested in nor capable of leading Socratic Seminars effectively.  They were nice, conscientious people who had gone through Ohio public schools and Ohio state universities and had never experienced intellectual activity or engagement themselves.  (I’ve been in many public school faculty lounges in which someone who reads Time or Newsweek is regarded as an intellectual:  “Oh, Jane would love that Socratic stuff, she’s so intellectual she reads Time and Newsweek!”).

Although he had $10 million to spend, he could not hire, fire, discipline, or promote the teachers.  They had absolutely no incentive to change their behavior and didn’t really see any reason why they should.  They were happy to get new books, new computers, and new software, and go to nice trainings with good food at cushy retreat centers, but in essence no matter how much money he spent they would still be the same people going through the same pedagogical rituals in the same classrooms.

In 2005 Timken High School made national headlines:  For the fact that 65 of the 490 female students enrolled were pregnant.

By contrast, I know that I can go into any inner city school in the U.S. and get students engaged in intellectual activity resulting in increased cognitive performance and the development of the prefrontal cortex, which allows us to “prioritize thoughts, imagine, think in the abstract, anticipate consequences, plan, and control impulses.”  I can raise IQ and SAT scores while improving behavior on fundamental cognitive functioning that is valuable for diverse aspects of a successful life.

Moreover, I can train arbitrary large numbers of other people to do the same:  But they need to be capable, articulate, intelligent people themselves.  I typically say that I’m looking for “bright, articulate liberal arts graduates” but many of my best teachers were mid-career professionals who had made enough money and were eager to try teaching.  All the schools that I created paid less than the prevailing public school teacher salaries in the regions I was in, and yet I never had a difficult time recruiting faculty.  Our society is awash with bright, capable people who would LOVE to teach under the right circumstances.  And leading Socratic Practice is an absolute blast!  It is one of the most intensely joyful experiences imaginable.

So I’m in this situation in which I have an incredibly powerful approach to improving the lives of the next generation of the urban underclass and yet I’m not allowed to implement it.  It is a solution that students love, teachers love, that brings meaning into the lives of students and faculty alike.  It is based on the traditional practices of thousands of years of western civilization while also being consistent with cutting-edge research in cognition and pedagogy.  Every time I pause to think about the situation I become apoplectic with outrage.  It is simply too painful.

How do I develop the frontal cortex and IQ scores of inner city kids?  By getting them to think, and think hard, for two hours per day.  I dare say that the vast majority of inner city high schools very little cognitive activity is taking place.  Thus I’m not claiming to do anything magical at all.  If one cohort of overweight people went to a program in which they engaged in vigorous exercise for two hours per day and another cohort simply watched television for the same two hours, no one would be surprised if the first cohort lost weight and the second didn’t.

Go sit in an inner city high school and watch class.  Observe how many students even seem to be intellectually engaged.  Or, if you please, simply watch an episode of “Beavis and Butthead.”  Are Beavis and Butthead getting smarter?  If not, why not?  Might it be because roughly 0% of their mental and emotional energy is focused on the content of schooling?

Now read “The First Three Days of Socratic Practice in an Inner City Classroom.”  Remember, these are just the first three days in which I move the dynamic of the class from a more or less unanimous “Beavis and Butthead” atmosphere to one in which leading personalities among the students are now aligned with me in enforcing a social norm in which we are going to get serious about thinking and talking about ideas while reading intellectually challenging material.  Now does it seem so outrageously unreasonable that two hours of this activity per day will result in more growth of the prefrontal cortex, and IQ, than would two hours of sitting in class putting “Beavis and Butthead” levels of cognitive effort every day?

But the skeptic can’t imagine that all of this is true:  Surely there must be something wrong with Michael’s story.  If he really had something this great, everyone would know about it, right?  Poor, misguided Michael . . .

And yet is it the case that better educational approaches are recognized and supported?  We’d all like to believe that if you build a better mousetrap, people will beat a path to your door, but is that the case in the realm of education?

1.  Some of us believe that Maria Montessori had developed an absolutely brilliant revolutionary approach to education – more than 100 years ago – which is STILL functioning only at the margins of our educational system.  Maria Montessori toured the U.S. in 1913 and impressed Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, and Hellen Keller – she had the highest level of celebrity support for her work at the time, and Montessori education began to spread in the U.S.  Then William Kilpatrick, an exceptionally influential professor of education, wrote a devastating critique of Montessori education which mostly destroyed the first wave of Montessori in the U.S.

Although a handful of Montessori schools from the 1920s survived, it was only in the late 1950s and, even more so, in the cultural revolution of the 1960s that Montessori education was again revived in the U.S.  Gradually Montessori pre-schools were created in the 1960s and 70s, some of which grew into elementary schools in the 70s and 80s, a few of which added middle school programs in the 80s and 90s.  When I created a Montessori middle school in Palo Alto in 1999, the Montessori middle school movement was still young.  One of our parents was the CFO of Pixar who observed our middle school, full of students enthusiastically engaged in their own work, and he said, “This is exactly what I would like to see going on at my company.”  Just the other night I was having dinner with very satisfied Montessori elementary school parents who nonetheless believed that Montessori education was great, but that the kids were not getting enough mathematics.  I had to assure them that whatever was going on at their child’s Montessori school, when I was at the Emerson School in Palo Alto our students were among the most mathematically advanced students in Silicon Valley.

As someone who believe in the value of Montessori and its deep alignment with a child’s well-being and with 21st century job skills I don’t need to convince you that Montessori education is valuable, despite the occasional weaknesses of various specific Montessori implementations.  Moreover Montessori has survived and grown despite a combination of unremitting hostility or indifference from the mainstream education establishment.  Consider this all-too-representative quotation from a 1984 academic book, Current Topics in Early Childhood Education (L.G. Katz., ed.):

Both educators and parents should be suspicious of a system that a) ignores recent educational thinking, especially in regard to using a modern understanding of child development to inform educational practice; b) trains teachers in isolation from all other teachers; c) accepts a low standard of teacher preparation (as measured by level of intake, length of training, rigor of training, credentials of the trainers, and acceptability of the credential); d) conceptualizes teacher education as an exercise in learning how to present the Montessori materials to children; e) defines education narrowly, paying scant attention to gross motor development, social skills, language and literature, creativity, and the arts; f) uses a harsh, outmoded system of discipline; and g) limits parental involvement.

As a pleased Montessori parent and advocate, I expect that you would agree with me that this paragraph amounts to uninformed bigotry, and yet that is the level of understanding of Montessori education that was respectable in academia in 1984.  Although I’m sure there are a few exceptions, I doubt it has gotten much better since then.  Most of the education majors I meet are barely introduced to Montessori the educator or Montessori the method.

As an American, I was very much raised to believe that if you build a better mousetrap, people will beat a path to your door.  But Maria Montessori built a spectacular mousetrap more than a hundred years ago, launched it to great celebrity fanfare in the U.S. nearly a hundred years ago, and it is still a tiny, marginal movement.  Hmmm . . .

2.  To take a very different case, consider the case of Burt Kaufman.  What?  You’ve never heard of Burt Kaufman?  Sadly almost no one has, despite being one of the most amazing mathematics educators of the 20th century.  Burt led the development of a completely original logic-based mathematics curriculum, the elementary school component of which was known as CSMP (Comprehensive School Mathematics Program) with a secondary school component for gifted students known as the EM (Elements of Mathematics).  Burt’s students developed a passionate lifelong love of mathematics and logic and many of them have either won or placed highly in national and international mathematics competitions.  He started by developing the mathematics program at Nova High School, an innovative public school in south Florida, and went on to obtain many millions of dollars in federal funding to develop his curricula and worked with some of the leading mathematics educators on earth, most of whom were passionate supporters of his work.

But the 1984 official evaluation of CSMP essentially killed the program:

CSMP is a difficult program to implement; it requires more money, a strong coordinator, training and additional preparation by teachers, and a change in teaching philosophy on the part of many teachers. The program does not seem to have much effect on standardized test scores. The program elicits a strong reaction from teachers, mostly favorable. The most important evaluation result is the improvement that CSMP makes in students ability to deal with various kinds of novel, problem-oriented, situations. Most mathematic educators consider this ability to be very important, very hard to bring about and very often ignored in favor of easy-to-measure computational skills.

WHAT?  In the banal bureaucratic language of the evaluation is hidden “various kinds of novel, problem-oriented, situations.”  You mean that CSMP is neutral with respect to standard metrics of computation BUT it helps kids to learn how to use mathematics to solve new kinds of problems in new ways?  But it is difficult to implement so we won’t do it anymore?  NOOOOOOOOO !!!!!!!!!!!!!!

But, yes, that is what happened, and now the millions of dollars spent on CSMP are considered yet another part of the failed history of pedagogical innovation because it was too hard to implement.  With one major exception:  Burt’s son and former colleagues continue to use CSMP at their for-profit after school mathematics enrichment program, the Institute for Mathematics and Computer Science.  They have since franchised their operation with locations in Connecticut, Florida, Missouri, and North Carolina.  I looked into opening up a franchise when I was creating the Bronze Doors Academy but they said they had stopped because it was too difficult for them to support their franchises adequately to maintain the level of quality to which they were committed.  Incidentally my son took CSMP classes while there and loved it, and I was envious of him for having the opportunity – I wish that I had had the opportunity to develop my mathematical mind in that way (he went on to become a math major at Reed and is now the CTO of a software start-up).

So wait:  This program is a successful for-profit after school chain but it was rejected by the public schools because it was too difficult to implement and did not show results on the standardized metrics?  Doesn’t this sound a bit like the Montessori saga?

I worked alongside the IMACS staff from 1997 to 1999 while I was creating The Winston Academy, a school for highly gifted students which used IMACS mathematics.  There story was very depressing for me:  Not only had they had the world’s best mathematics educators behind them, and the enthusiasm of many mathematicians (who understand why the ability to apply mathematics reasoning to novel situations is non-trivial, to say the least), but they had also had millions in funding from the National Science Foundation and elsewhere.  Yet they had been reduced to a small private sideshow.  Maybe, just maybe, the problem was structural?

3.  So forget me and my Socratic Practice, forget the 100 year history of Montessori, forget the peculiar mathematics curricula of Burt Kaufman.  What happens when a teacher achieves spectacular results in an inner city public school and is recognized widely for doing so?  Well Jaime Escalante famously taught AP calculus with stunning success to students at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles, leading to a biography by  Washington Post education writer Jay Mathews that described him as “the best teacher in America” and the famous 1988 Hollywood film, “Stand and Deliver,” for which actor Edward James Olmos received an Academy Award nomination for “best actor” in his role as Jaime Escalante.  Surely once the Washington Post and Hollywood are on one’s side a great educator can create a great program?

Sadly, no.  Escalante’s AP calculus program, which started with a handful of students in the early 1980s, grew to over 400 students by 1990, had essentially vanished five years later.  Escalante himself left in 1991 and his hand-picked successor left the following year, both victims of political infighting at the school at which he had created his greatest successes.  The sordid tale is told here, a depressing story of institutional dysfunction undermining the work of an individual who was undoubtedly a brilliant educator.

I could go on and on with accounts of great educators whose work is thwarted by the system, with each story more sickening than the last.  The simple fact is that the highly politicized, bureaucratic governance structure of “public” schools does not reward quality or innovation.  Roughly 25% of Detroit public school students graduate from high school. Cornerstone Schools in Detroit, educating kids from exactly the same demographic, a private school chain that raises millions from private donors each year, manages to graduate nearly 100%.  Sure there is self-selection in such a situation.  But Jaime Escalante took kids that everyone thought were losers and turned them into some of the best calculus students in the U.S.  Maybe it is possible to do a MUCH better job than average of educating even poor, inner city students?

Maybe I’m not crazy?  Maybe our institutional systems are really the problem?  Maybe Brookings Institution scholars John Chubb and Terry Moe were right, more than 20 years ago now, when they courageously broke with mainstream left-liberal orthodoxy to advocate for school choice:

During the 1980s, widespread dissatisfaction with America’s schools gave rise to a powerful movement for educational change, and the nation’s political institutions responded with aggressive reforms. Chubb and Moe argue that these reforms are destined to fail because they do not get to the root of the problem. The fundamental causes of poor academic performance, they claim, are not to be found in the schools, but rather in the institutions of direct democratic control by which the schools have traditionally been governed. Reformers fail to solve the problem-when the institutions ARE the problem.

The authors recommend a new system of public education, built around parent-student choice and school competition, that would promote school autonomy-thus providing a firm foundation for genuine school improvement and superior student achievement.

As someone who could walk into a classroom tomorrow and start making a difference in the lives of young inner city youth, none of this is hypothetical.  For me, Maria Montessori’s 1912 rhetoric rings true with as much urgency for me today as it did for her then,

“To-day an urgent need imposes itself upon society: the reconstruction of methods in education and instruction, and he who fights for this cause, fights for human regeneration.”

But after a hundred years of unnecessary, and tragic, marginalization of Montessori education (along with the others listed above and countless other fabulous innovations that lie stillborn and invisible) we now realize that

“Today an urgent need imposes itself upon society:  The reconstruction of the institutions of education, and she who fights for this cause, fights for human regeneration.”

If we had a way to increase IQ and develop the prefrontal cortex of inner city youth would we implement it?  And if we don’t, who exactly is responsible for this decision?

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School Choice as a Response to Robert Frank’s Case for the Rational Libertarian

While I’ve not read Robert Frank’s most recent book, The Darwin Economy:  Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good, based on reviews it seems to be an elaboration of an argument that Frank has been making for thirty years:  That competition for positional goods (status goods which are valuable only as evidence to show that you are keeping up with the Joneses) is both wasteful and does not improve human well-being.  I did read Frank’s Choosing the Right Pond, which makes the same case, when I was in graduate school and agreed with his thesis then.  While I might read The Darwin Economy, I don’t need to be convinced by his thesis.  It was obvious to me before reading Choosing the Right Pond, and more elaboration of the same thesis doesn’t change anything for me.

In The Darwin Economy apparently breaks new ground by focusing his argument specifically on “the rational libertarian” whom he hopes to convince.  He wants to convince “rational libertarians” of two theses:

1.  That competition for positional goods is wasteful and does not increase human happiness or well-being.

2.  That this fact therefore justifies a “progressive consumption tax,” a tax on consumption that increases the more one consumes.

As mentioned above, I’m already on board with his first thesis and have been for as long as I can remember.  Status competition based on conspicuous consumption has always struck me as silly and wasteful.  Done.

But while I understand his theoretical argument for a “progressive consumption tax,” and am mildly sympathetic in theory, I’m not convinced it would actually do much to solve the issue if implemented in an ideal manner, and in any real world situation it would actually open the door to even more rent-seeking as every purveyor of consumer goods would jockey to get their competitors’ goods taxed while exempting their own.

Meanwhile, there is a far more profound and satisfying way to address Frank’s concerns:  The expansion of subcultures that do not participate in materialistic status competition.  I’ve mentioned this path to Frank, and he agreed in a private communication that it is an important path, but I’ve not yet tried to convince him that it is a full-blown alternative to his consumption tax.

Frank came to his ideas after living simply in a poor nation and then realizing that he was just as happy without material possessions as he was with them.  Of course, many of us have had this experience.  In addition, I see Frank’s thesis as the natural projection of an academic:  At universities status is determined more by scholarly success than by material possessions.  Meanwhile, professors tend to be especially prone to despise business people who are, in general, more financially successful than are the professors.  One could read Frank’s “progressive consumption tax” as a manifestation of Frank’s class interest as an academic.

But there are many communities with status hierarchies that are not determined strictly by material wealth, including some religious communities, some bohemian communities, indeed any group of human beings who judge human beings by something other than material wealth.  I’ve lived most of my life among diverse manifestations of such communities, so much so that I’m always surprised by people who feel anxious about their status based on their relative lack of wealth.

And I find that as people who were previously anxious about their status due to a lack of relative wealth discover and are introduced into other communities with status hierarchies based on other criteria, they gradually become less anxious about it and often begin to compete based on the criteria for status in the new community (artistic or athletic excellence, religious purity or spiritual evolution, kindness and decency, intellectual ability, etc.)

The most formative years for our identity typically take place within schools and universities, from the age of four or so to the age of twenty or more).  All of the educational institutions that I’ve loved or created have been communities where material status hierarchies were not primary.  In my experience, when one starts a school and is able to hire, fire, and promote faculty based on their commitment to the vision and mission of the school (including the distinctive criteria for status as defined by the school), then one can create a community in which the young people do not develop identities based primarily on material status.  While some of them may become addicted to material status competition when they leave the community, others stay attached to the extended community and its norms.  Even those who leave to join the “rat race,” so to speak, know of an alternative moral universe, and often return.

But in order to create these communities, educators need significantly more educational freedom than is possible in government schools.  If we had a system of tuition tax credits with minimal constraints on the content of “schooling,” we would see a steady growth in various forms of schooling that provided young people with not only the ability to get a good job (nothing said here should imply that we should not educate young people to earn as much as they please), but with a sense of confidence and personal purpose that will increase their lifelong happiness – and decrease the extent to which they are vulnerable to shallow status competitions that may not be in their best interest, whether those status competitions are based on binge drinking, thuggish gang behavior, outrageous sexual promiscuity, conspicuous consumption, or whatever.

Thus I am a “rational libertarian” who shares Frank’s concerns but who believes that markets in education and community are crucial for addressing those concerns.  As Arnold Kling likes to say, “Markets fail.  Use more markets.”  Frank is identifying a legitimate case of market failure.  This is precisely why we need far more autonomy in creating educational communities – and ultimately in creating full-blown human communities with distinctive rules that support distinctive status hierarchies.

See The Creation of Conscious Culture through Educational Innovation for more.

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Waldorf Educators Leaders in Promoting School Choice in New York

I’ve long believed that the most stalwart advocates of school choice should be those educators committed to create a better world through healthier, more human culture.

Through years of experience as an educator myself working to create better culture, I eventually got to the point where I realized that in order to create schools that provided better micro-cultures, it was essential to provide dedicated teacher training programs to ensure that all the teachers and administrators of those schools shared a common vision and pedagogical practice (see my work on “The Missing Institution.”)  To date, the Waldorf and Montessori systems are the primary alternative systems dedicated to creating a better culture, including dedicated teacher training programs.  (Reggio Emilia and Sudbury Valley are other alternative programs with some scale, but without dedicated teacher training and certification).

I’ve tried to persuade my fellow Montessori educators of the importance of school choice but with only limited success.  I would say that within the Montessori movement the issue largely divides along partisan lines, with something like 95% of Montessorians identifying as “progressives” and also resisting school choice out of a misguided loyalty to the teachers unions, who will never return the support.  (There also exists a small network of libertarian-inclined Montessorians, some of which were inspired to look into Montessori through Ayn Rand’s strong endorsement of Montessori education).

It was a great pleasure, then, for me to discover Gary Lamb, one of the pedagogical leaders of the Waldorf movement globally.  Gary is a thoughtful thinker and writer who has realized fully that:

1.  Government schooling is by its very nature opposed to the essence of Waldorf education.

2.  This will never change.

He has gone even further and analyzed the real risks of government funding of private education, and thoroughly convinced me that tax credits are less risky (in terms of government intrusion into the educational process) than are vouchers or charter schools.

Gary has observed in the world of Waldorf education, as I have in the world of Montessori education, how government control (in charter and public school implementations) gradually sucks the heart out of such programs.  There is a great danger that the distinctive reputations of Waldorf and Montessori could be destroyed as faux-Waldorf and faux-Montessori programs proliferate in well-intentioned efforts to create “public” versions.

Gary is now leading an initiative, in collaboration with religious and independent school groups, to promote a donation tax credit in NY (whereby individuals or corporations receive a tax credit for giving to a private school scholarship fund).  This approach will save NY state money while also nourishing private education.

It is a great pleasure to find a rare ally in my effort to promote education that is directed towards the happiness and well-being for all.

For more see Hawthorne Valley Center for Social Research – CAUSE NYS:  Citizens’ Alliance for Universal School Choice in New York State.


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Why Don’t Economists Understand Innovation in Education?

Chicago Booth School of Business hosts The Initiative on Global Markets which explores the extent to which economists agree or disagree on major policy initiatives.  In this poll, they are asked,

“Public school students would receive a higher quality education if they all had the option of taking the government money (local, state, federal) currently being spent on their own education and turning that money into vouchers that they could use towards covering the costs of any private school or public school of their choice (e.g. charter schools).”

The (modestly) good news is that the preponderance of opinion in this particular example agrees with the statement (29% agree and 7% strongly agree vs. 17% disagree and 2% strongly disagree).

What is most discouraging, however, is the fact that there is little appreciation in their comments that the dynamics of innovation would apply in the case of education.  I would hope that at this point most economists understand that the extraordinary increase in wealth around the world that we’ve seen in the past two hundred years is the result of Smithian effects (endlessly refined division of labor, leading to ever more granular niche identification, specialization of technique, and continuous expansion of the gains from trade from ever more nuanced applications of the law of comparative advantage) combined with Schumpeterian effects (the endless process of creative destruction in which new entrepreneurs combine ideas and resources in new ways that satisfy human needs more effectively than before).

When we allow this process to take place in education, we will see extraordinary increases in human happiness and well-being, analogous to the gains in material well-being that we’ve seen in the world of technology.  But because every economy on earth has introduced large-scale coercive tax-financed education as soon as they they have begun to become prosperous, humanity has never allowed both Smithian and Schumpeterian effects at scale over time in the realm of human development.  Thus we have not unleashed the fundamental dynamics of innovation and prosperity creation in the realm of human development.

As I’ve written elsewhere, charter schools, or narrowly-defined voucher programs, will not allow the full benefits of a market in human development to come into being.  In order to obtain access to these benefits we need to create profitable opportunities for educational entrepreneurs that are outside the dominant, government-defined operating system of education.  In addition, we need to allow for a much broader understanding of human development, one which is not dictated by the educated manderins.  As long as “success” in our society is defined by those whose personalities and upbringings are adapted to conventional schooling, we will be unfairly and unnecessarily harming those whose personalities and upbringings are not so adapted.

To be fair, the economists apparently only had 140 characters in which to express their thoughts.  That said, especially those who were hostile to the proposal showed no evidence of any awareness that the most fundamental dynamics of innovation in the global economy would also apply to education if allowed to do so.

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How the Endless Process of Division of Labor and the Entrepreneurial Identification of New Niches Would Transform Education If We Allowed it To Do So

I don’t actually have time to write a complete account of “How the Endless Process of Division of Labor and the Entrepreneurial Identification of New Niches Would Transform Education If We Allowed it To Do So” this morning, but I continue to be endlessly frustrated by the narrowness of vision in the field of education among academics, educators, business leaders, progressives, conservatives, libertarians, and pretty much everyone else.

This weekend I met someone who is a headhunter specializing in recruiting talent for FDA compliance officers for pharmaceutical companies.  He was a very decent person, but just the fact that our economy has specialized to the point at which there are full-time positions focused on recruiting FDA compliance officers for pharmaceutical companies reminded me of how limited specialization is in education.

Economists (good ones, at least) understand that all the prosperity of the modern world can basically be attributed to some combination of Smithian gains (division of labor) or Schumpeterian gains (creative destruction and the entrepreneurial identification and exploitation of ever more granular niches).  A major reason why modern society is a mess is because we do not allow this process to work in the fields of education, human development, and community formation.  (Conversely our technology is amazing and fantastic precisely because we DO allow this process to work in many, albeit not all, technological domains).

Through a series of unique circumstances, I started my full-time educational career as a full-time Socratic Seminar teacher trainer.  This itself is a specialized position that does not normally exist in the standard universe of educational occupations (which does include specialization as a math teacher, a hearing specialist, special education teachers, Assistant Superintendents of Curriculum and Instruction, reading specialists, etc.)  Over the course of my years as a Socratic Seminar teacher trainer, sometimes I would work with pre-school teachers, elementary teachers, middle school teachers, and high school teachers, each of which could be a Socratic Seminar teacher training speciality in itself.  Beyond the age/grade level distinctions, there could be Socratic Seminar teacher trainers specializing in mathematics, science, history, Spanish, literature, etc.  Beyond that there could be Socratic Seminar teacher trainers specializing in Catholic versions, Buddhist versions, Mormon versions, Secular Humanist versions, etc.  And each of these niches would have their own administrator trainings, their own curriculum developers, etc.

In the Montessori world there are distinctive trainings for infant, pre-school, elementary, upper elementary, and middle school.  I was at one point deeply involved in the world of Montessori middle school education, which was really in the process of being developed.  There again endless specialization would result in endless refinement and ever more sophisticated expertise.

When I created The Winston Academy in Plantation, Florida, our mathematics and computer science programs were developed by the Institute for Mathematics and Computer Science (IMACS).  Burt Kaufman, the leading spirit behind IMACS, was by any standard an amazing mathematics educator.  The programs that he and his team created over the decades provide young people with a uniquely powerful form of mathematics training.  But when IMACS attempted to franchise itself, they found that they could not ensure that the franchisee locations had adequately trained staff, so they pulled back.  I’ve tried to implement some of their programs at some of the schools I’ve created, but it is difficult because an IMACS instructor needs extensive training, ideally a year-long internship, in each domain of IMACS instruction:   The CSMP program, the Elements of Mathematics program, and their version of Scheme programming.

Skeptics can say that I don’t need to create my own Socratic training, I could just work as an education professor or superintendent of curriculum of instruction somewhere.  Or that Montessori middle schools are just fine as they are.  Or that there are plenty of great math programs available without the ridiculously idiosyncratic and obscure IMACS program.

Yeah, right, and Steve Jobs should have gotten a degree in electrical engineering and gone to work at Xerox.

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Is It Possible to Help the Poor with Government Funding of Education?

I’m all in favor of giving the poor direct cash transfers, such as the Negative Income Tax or Citizen’s Dividends.

But the more I think about education the more I wonder if government funding of education is not part of the problem.

Certainly the existing system of education, managed by teachers and bureaucrats for teachers and bureaucrats, is morally illegitimate.  Thus I am for “school choice,” including charter schools, educational vouchers, and tuition tax credits.

But when I think about Seagram, and many other students I’ve seen like him, I wonder:  How do we really give these young people better lives?

At a conference once I met an African-American ex-con, a big, tough, uneducated guy who, after prison, had devoted himself to creating an after school program, financed by local churches, designed to help inner city boys avoid gangs and develop the discipline, determination, and focus they needed to become successful adults in the world.  He was a hero:  A great human being with a big heart, a clever mind, an undeniable passion, and the kind of person that it would be very, very hard to disappoint.

But as I spoke with him and learned from him I also noted in my mind:  THERE IS NO F#^%*@*@** WAY THIS GUY COULD EVER START A CHARTER SCHOOL OR GET A GOVERNMENT GRANT!  An uneducated ex-con?  Yeah, right.  But maybe these are the kind of guys we need to make a real, deep, lasting, valuable change in the lives of most inner-city African-American boys.

Personally, my rule in education is always:  “Do what is right.”  If the law doesn’t let you do what is right, break the law.  If the funding mechanism for education won’t let you channel funding to the good guys, then to hell with that funding mechanism.

But imagine if the government funded uneducated ex-cons:  Public relations disasters – and some of them would be 100% real disasters.  That is why ultimately the ONLY way to get really great human beings, the right really great human beings, in front of young teen boys is if private organizations, church or otherwise, dependent on donations, provide the financing.  A particular organization picks the wrong uneducated ex-con, the one who recruits for gangs rather than taking them away from gangland?  That organization gets no more donations.  The organization that picks and funds heroes?  It flourishes.  Not always and in every case, but on balance these outcomes are far more likely in such a system.

Most do-gooders would be horrified at the notion that government funding itself is part of the poison.  But they are not the ones with the sons dying in the streets.

Is an after school program enough for our heroes?  Is an hour or two of optional activity after school enough?

Or does government funding of education GUARANTEE that many inner city young males, who urgently, urgently need good role models, do not have them when they most need them?

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