November 24, 2013

America's best high schools

The best high schools in the U.S. are at this link. There are charters and regular public. They are not in the “super smart” places you might guess. They are in Kentucky, Florida (2), Arizona (2), Texas (2) & Virginia.  

Two on the list are Basis charter schools. They are criticized for having larger class size and not being completely transparent about finances, but who cares? When Lincoln was told that Ulysses S Grant was a drunk, he reportedly ask what brand of whiskey he drank so that he could send it to his other generals.

Whatever they are doing, we should study and try to copy and adapt to other schools. I think we have a bad habit when talking about social problems in general and education in particular. We look at the bad performers and losers and ask what keeps them down. A better tactic would be to look to successful performers and ask what they do right.

Leo Tolstoy wrote, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." This is not a mere literary truism. It is based on the idea that there are a an infinite number of ways to screw up, but a much smaller set of things to do right. That is it is smart to work from positive examples and avoid being tinged by bad ones.

In my experience, most negative people dislike positive ones. I think that tendency explains much of the losers' "bad luck." To them, a positive success is a kind of insult. It points to the fact that they are screwing up in ways the prefer not to change. There is also a lot of envy involved. Maybe we cannot avoid the deadly sin of envy in all our personal transactions, but we should base policy on copying and adapting the best.

August 31, 2013

HBCUs in Brazil and the U.S.

HBCU delegation 

The exciting news that came with the HBCU visit is that the Brazilian Ministry of Education is going to fund scholarships for prospective Brazilian secondary school teachers to go to HBCUs.  The plan is for them to start their university studies in Brazil for the first year.  After that, they spend two years in HBCUs, and then return to Brazil for their fourth year to graduate in Brazil.

We have to work out details. This program will be complicated because it is specifically designed to send only to HBCUs and the Brazilian target audience will be Brazilians of African descent. This kind of affirmative action is controversial in Brazil and difficult for practical reasons.  

Brazilians don’t recognize the same racial categories as we traditionally have. In America, race was identified as any African descent, no matter how small a percentage or physical appearance. Brazil is not so black and white. Most Brazilians have some kind of mixed heritage and it has always been appearance rather than heritage that counts. Brazilians are not surprised to find that a “black” man and a “white” one are brothers, or that parents might have children of what we would call different races.  That is, if they even bothered to think about it at all. In the U.S., we would probably try to resolve this dilemma; in Brazil the dilemma just doesn’t exist.  You are what you look like and the definition might vary.  An individual, who might be called mostly black in primary European southern Brazil, might be identified as mostly white in heavily African heritage Bahia. There is a famous case at the University of Brasília where identical twin brothers were classified into different racial categories.  

The use of racial categories for affirmative action purposes is creating the need to more closely and permanently define racial identity. Blacks make up less than 8% of the Brazilian population, but mixed race people are more than 43% and even among the 48% that now identify as white, there is room for interpretation. If there is advantage, more people will emphasize their African heritage and the African-Brazilian population will likely grow despite falling birthrates. 

One thing that may be useful in casting a wider net is additional emphasis on English. Students from poorer backgrounds, which often include more African-Brazilians, tend not to have English up to the level required for university study. English is the single biggest barrier to a more inclusive education policy.  The Brazilian government is working to improve English competence in general and specifically they will fund additional English study for those selected to go to HBCUs.

March 16, 2013

Usually you just get one

Like cats, we must have nine lives because Brazil keeps giving us “once in a lifetime” opportunities. 

The latest came at lunch yesterday with education leaders in São Paulo. To my growing amazement & delight, a representative of the state education laid out his aspirations to create a network of community colleges inspired by American models. He asked how we could help. What he wants is exactly what we are eager to give him: connections with appropriate Americans and the chance for institutional linkages. I would not have aspired to this in my more grandiose imaginings. 

The Brazilian side has the determination, the resources and the desire to work with us. Having all those things at one time and in one place is rare. All we need do is say yes and I will not let this pass.

This is the opportunity to develop in São Paulo the kind of phenomenally successful working relationship that we have with CAPES and MEC in in Brasília. We have the opportunity to be present at the creation, when the institutions are forming that will influence the lives of millions of Brazilians and – again – create and enhance relationship among Americans and Brazilians that will affect our relations for a generation. 

Louis Brandeis famously said that the states are the laboratories of democracy. Brazilian states are not exactly like ours, but the laboratory of democracy can work here too. A success in São Paulo can be adapted and emulated by others. São Paulo has the resources to be the leader. We will help.

There is the old saying about limited vision, that a person cannot see the forest because of all the trees. This is so big that we almost cannot see it for what it is. It requires that we deploy our “new” paradigm of leveraging our influence by imaginatively helping our Brazilian friends. It is a win all around. We join in their dreams. They achieve their aspiration while satisfying those of Americans eager to get more involved in Brazil’s growing opportunities. I have no doubt that we will find lots of Americans and American institutions who want to work with this.  

I wonder how many more "opportunities of a lifetime" Brazil will give me before I am done here. Usually you just get one. It is scary. I always say that it is better to be lucky than smart. But how long can luck hold?

February 11, 2013

Education: what works?

Finland & South Korea – that is what works. The problem with copying this success is that Finland and South Korea follow almost polar opposite strategies. South Korea is #2. They follow what seems like a hellish, highly competitive study system where the kids study from early morning until late at night.  In contrast, #1 Finland follows a laid back Andy of Mayberry plan.  Kids don’t do much homework at night; they don’t even do schoolwork during all of the relatively short school day.  

Clearly one size does not fit all and culture makes a big difference.  East Asia has a hierarchical educational system with roots in highly competitive civil service examinations that go back 2000 years in China. In theory, anybody could take the test. The tests were cruelly hard, pass rates vanishingly low and the stakes dizzyingly high. Passing the test meant prosperity for the aspirant and his whole family.   Failure could mean poverty & misery. This testing culture persists. Finish culture is very different.  Hierarchy is not much respected and the idea that a single test could determine someone’s future just doesn’t seem to make any sense in the north woods.  I am glad that Finland beats out South Korea, even if it is an irony that it in some ways uses a hierarchical list to argue against a hierarchical system. Mine is clearly a value judgment and I don’t shy away from making it.  Hard work is an important part of life but it is not the only thing and it is just smart to accomplish our goals with as little effort and suffering as possible.

Phrases like “you are always looking for the easy way out” and “you are just picking the low hanging fruit” are often used pejoratively, implying that there is something wrong with doing these things. But who is stupid enough to advocate a harder way to do something if a similarly successful easier way is available? I am willing to work hard when I must but I find no virtue in working hard unnecessarily.

I like this phrase, “if it NEED not be done, it need NOT be done.” Lots of what we do during a workday add little or no value to the goals we are trying to achieve. One of our top jobs should be to determine things that need not be done and eliminate them. Presumably we can redirect our efforts to more effective and higher priority tasks.  One priority task that often gets short shrift is thinking about what we are doing and/or preparing to do so by reading good books or taking training.  If you are worried about the exact language in a memo requesting a package of pencils, you are not doing your job or your job isn’t very important.

This is what may be happening with education in these places. Korean kids are working full out and producing excellent results but probably spreading their efforts to include lots of low or no priority activities. It is a kind of full court press.  It gets everything done but at a high cost to participants.

We emphasize effort a bit too much. Sometimes the added results are not worth the added effort especially if you have other options. What to do is as important as how to do it. Pick the low hanging fruit first and if that is all you need, move along to the next task. There is no virtue in doing what need not be done, unless it if fun and then that is a different type of game.

I didn’t really talk much about what works in education. I suggest you listen to this from NPR that inspired me to write.  I ordered on Amazon the book “Finnish Lessons” mentioned on the program.  Maybe I will have a few more ideas after I read it. I have already decided that I would not want the U.S. to copy the Korean model.  Finland looks better.