Category Archives: Education

Coding school is becoming everyone’s favorite form of job training

For many years, construction skills training (often but not always in the form of YouthBuild) was every funder’s and every nonprofit’s favorite form of job training, often supplemented by entry-level healthcare work, but today the skill de jour has switched to software, programming, and/or coding. Case in point: this NYT article with the seductive headline, “Income Before: $18,000. After: $85,000. Does Tiny Nonprofit Pursuit Hold a Key to the Middle Class?” While the article is overwhelming positive, it’s not clear how many people are going to make it through Pursuit-like programs: “Max Rosado heard about the Pursuit program from a friend. Intrigued, he filled out an online form, and made it through a written test in math and logic…” (emphasis added). In addition, “Pursuit, by design, seeks people with the ‘highest need’ and potential, but it is selective, accepting only 10 percent of its applicants.” So the organization is cherry-picking its participants.

There’s nothing wrong with cherry-picking participants and most social and human service programs do just that, in the real world. As grant writers who live in the proposal world, we always state in job training proposals that the applicant (our client) will never cherry-pick trainees, even though they do. In the article, important details about cherry-picking are stuck in the middle, below the tantalizing lead, so most people will miss them. I’m highlighting them because they bring to the fore an important fact in many social and human service programs: there is a tension between access and success. Truly open-access programs tend to have much lower success rates; if everyone can enter, many of those who do will not have the skills or conscientiousness necessary to succeed. If an organization cherry-picks applicants, like Pursuit does, it will generally get better success metrics, but at the cost of selectivity.

Most well-marketed schools succeed in “improving” their students primarily through selection effects. That’s why the college-bribery scandal is so comedic: no one involved is worried about their kid flunking out of school. Schools are extremely selective in admissions and not so selective in curriculum or grading. Studies have consistently suggested that where you go to school matters much less than who you are and what you learn. Such studies don’t stop people from treating degrees as status markers and consumption goods, but it does imply that highly priced schools are often not worth it. Thorstein Veblen tells us a lot more about the current market for “competitive” education than anyone else.

My digs at well-marketed schools are not gratuitous to the main point: I favor Pursuit and Pursuit-like organizations and we have worked for some of them. In addition, it’s clear to pretty much anyone who has spent time teaching in non-elite schools that the way the current post-secondary education system is set up is nuts and makes little sense; we need a wider array of ways for people to learn the skills they need to thrive. If Pursuit and Pursuit-like programs are going to yield those skills, we should work towards supporting more of them.

It is almost certainly not existing schools that are going to boost more people into the middle class, as they’ve become overly bureaucratic, complacent, and sclerotic; see also Bryan Caplan’s book The Case Against Education on this subject. While many individuals within those systems may want change, they cannot align all the stakeholders to create change from within. Some schools, especially in the community-college sector, are re-making themselves, but many are not. In the face of slowness, however, nimble nonprofits and businesses should move where this grant wave is going.

The movement towards a $15 minimum hourly wage and the Pre-K For All program in NYC


Over the last few years, the highly marketed $15/hour minimum wage has had remarkable success: it, along with the recent economic boom and historically low unemployment rates, have increased wages for some unskilled/low skill workers in some areas. Last week, though, I was developing a budget for a federal grant proposal on behalf of a large nonprofit in NYC. The federal program requires the use of “Parent Mentors”, which is another way of saying “Peer Outreach Worker.” So two full-time equivalent (FTE) Parent Mentors went into the budget.

“Peer” staff are not professionals—college degrees or formal work experience aren’t typically required. Instead, the peer is supposed to have life experience similar to the target population (e.g., African American persons in recovery for a substance abuse disorder treatment project in an African American neighborhood) or street credentials (“street cred”) to relate to the target population (e.g., ex-gang-bangers to engage current gang-bangers). In most human services programs, the peer staff are supervised by a professional staff person with a BA, MSW, LCSW, or similar degree. While the peer staff are at the bottom of the org chart, in many cases, they’re much more important to getting funded and operating a successful program than the 24-year-old recent Columbia grad with a degree in urban studies or psychology, as the “supervisor” is often afraid to go out into the community without a peer staff person riding shotgun. The situation is analogous to a first-year military officer who is technically superior to a 15-year enlisted veteran sergeant.

There are 2,080 person hours in a person year, so, at $15/hour, one FTE peer worker is budgeted at $31,200/year. If a nonprofit operates in an area with a $15/hour minimum wage, that’s the lowest salary that can be legally proposed. For many nonprofits, actual salaries for entry-level professional staff are about $30,000 to $35,000 per year. One might say, “No problem, just raise the professional salaries to $40,000.” This is, however, not easily done, as the maximum grants for most federal and state programs have not been adjusted to reflect minimum wages in places like New York or Seattle. If the nonprofit has been running a grant-funded program for five years, they’ve probably been paying the peer workers around $10/hour, and the new RFP very likely has the same maximum grant—say, $200,000—as the one from five years ago. That means one-third fewer peer workers.

If a Dairy Queen (I’m quite fond of DQ, like Warren Buffet) is suddenly confronted by the much higher minimum wage, they can try making the Blizzards one ounce smaller, skipping the pickles on the DQ Burgers, or buying a Flippy Burger Robot, and laying off a couple of 17-year olds. Nonprofits can’t generally deploy any of these strategies, as the service targets in the RPF are the the same as they ever were. For “capitated programs” like foster care, the nonprofit has to absorb rising costs, because they have a fixed reimbursement from the funder (e.g., $1,000/month/foster kid to cover all program expenses); we’re also unlikely to see robot outreach workers any time soon.

Most nonprofits also depend to some extent on fundraisers and donations. It’s hard enough to extract coin from your board and volunteers, so having a “New Minimum Wage Gala” is not likely to be a winning approach. Some higher-end restaurants in LA have added surcharges for higher minimum wages and employee health insurance, a practice I find annoying (just raise the damn pasta price from $20 to $22 and stop trying to virtue signal—or make me feel guilty). That avenue is typically closed to nonprofits, because the whole point is to provide no-cost services, or, in cases like Boys and Girls Clubs, very low-cost fees ($20 to play in the basketball league). Some organizations charge nominal membership fees, which are often waived anyway.

The nonprofit and grant worlds move much slower than the business world, and I guess we’ll just have to wait for the funders to catch up with rising minimum wages. In the meantime, some nonprofits are going to go under, just like this US News and World Report article that reports, “76.5 percent of full-service restaurant respondents said they had to reduce employee hours and 36 percent said they eliminated jobs in 2018 in response to the mandated wage increase” in New York City. More grants will also likely end up going to lower-cost cities and states, where it’s possible to hire three outreach workers instead of two outreach workers.

We write lots of Universal Pre-K (UPK) and Pre-K For All proposals in NYC and few, if any, of our early childhood education clients over the years have paid their “teachers” or “assistant teachers”—who are mostly peer workers with at most a 12-week certificate—$15/hour. There’s a new NYC Pre-K For All RFP on the street, and, if we’re hired to write any this year, the budgeting process will be interesting, as the City has minimum staffing levels for these classrooms, so staff cannot be cut.

Some organizations will get around the rules. Many religious communities are already “familiar,” you might say, with ways of getting around conventional taxation and regulatory rules. Their unusual social bonds enable them to do things other organizations can’t do. Many religious communities also vote as blocks and consequently get special dispensation in local and state grants and contracts. We’ll also likely end up seeing strategies like offering “stipends” to “parent volunteers” to get around the “wage” problem. For most nonprofits in high-minimum-wage areas, however, the simple reality is that fewer services will be provided per dollar spent.

Rare good political news: Boosting apprenticeships

Trump Orders U.S. Regulatory Review to Boost Apprentice Programs” is not a good headline, but the article is worth reading because apprenticeships are important, underrated, and should be more prominent and prevalent. We’ve written about the desirability of apprenticeships before, in posts like “The Department of Labor’s ‘American Apprenticeship Initiative’ (AAI) Shows Some Forward Thinking by the Feds.” Moving towards an apprenticeship-based model is also a bipartisan good idea that should get both left and right excited.

Right now, most federal education policy is oriented towards getting everyone into a four-year college or university and graduating with a four-year degree—but, as the cost of college rises faster than other sector of the economy, it’s not clear that college is always such a good idea. In addition, the value of a degree varies widely by major. Just “going to college” is often not enough. The number of people who have expensive college degrees yet find themselves in jobs not requiring them also appears to be rising; I went to an expensive liberal arts school in the northeast, and one of my roommates from college is working as a bartender. I don’t want to disparage bartenders, having availed myself of their services many times, but four years and five figures—if not more—in costs is a terrible misallocation of resources.

For The Story’s Story, I wrote about Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton’s Paying for the Party. The book is too complex and interesting to summarize briefly, but one of its main points concerns the way colleges have evolved party tracks that require little studying—but undergrads with successful outcomes on that track tend to be wealthy and socially connected. Many undergrads wander onto that track without their peers’ financial and social resources, only to fail to graduate or to graduate with weak degrees that don’t produce much income.

Given this situation, policy change is warranted. If college was once a panacea, growing college costs have eliminated that situation. Shifting towards apprenticeships is one way to shift in a smarter direction. Right now, the Department of Labor and some states have “Registered Apprenticeships” programs of various kinds, but most of those are in the construction trades. We’d be better served to broaden that base.

The original article cited above also points out that Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta appears to be behind the shift. He appears to be of higher competence than many current executive branch political appointees, which is good. As a side note, in contemporary politics, there tends to be a drive to oppose anything at all proposed by the “other” party. This tendency is bad. We should work as hard as we can to judge any policy or person on its (or their) merits. Don’t oppose or favor a particular policy merely because your “team” opposes or favors it.

Over time we may also see the definition of “apprenticeship” and “school” change. For example, many coding bootcamps aren’t traditional schools and aren’t exactly apprenticeships either. A couple friends have done the Flatiron School in New York City. Lambda School is a new, promising effort. Pretty much everyone knows that high-paying, in-demand fields include programming and almost all levels of healthcare, while there isn’t a huge amount of demand for generic grads in most non-technical four-year college programs and for people who don’t have many skills. Things like coding boot camps may fill the gap between school and work for some people, while traditional trades seem to be robust, as those of us who have had to pay a plumber or roofer knows.

Apprenticeships are also an obviously good idea from the perspective of academia; anyone who teaches college students at schools below the most elite level knows that a large number of students really shouldn’t be in college. This was most obvious to me at the University of Arizona, but it happens across the academic landscape. Many of us in the basement of the Ivory Tower are attuned to the many students who don’t like school, drop out of it, but still have to pay a lot for it via student loans that can’t be discharged in bankruptcy. I’ve been teaching undergrads for ten years, and it’s clear that many undergrads don’t know why they’re in college, don’t care about school, and are floundering in an academic milieu; they don’t like abstract symbol manipulation, sitting still for long periods of time, or reading.

Many college students go because their high school teachers and parents tell them to, yet many dropout after taking on student loans, or they graduate with weak degrees, little learning, and few connections. See, for example, “Exclusive Test Data: Many Colleges Fail to Improve Critical-Thinking Skills.” In modern colleges, there is a lot of “They pretend to learn and we pretend to teach.” Professors are mostly rewarded for research and grad students are socialized to ignore teaching in favor of research. To be sure, some professors do focus on teaching, and community colleges in particular are teaching-oriented—yet the overall culture is clear, and many of the least-prepared, most-marginal students pay the price. Professors have often realized that there is little incentive to grade honestly and lots of incentive to not rock the boat, pass students along if at all possible, and collect those (meager) paychecks.

To professors, the unreadiness of many students is so vast that it’s hard to motivate them or pull them into the academic or intellectual culture. Many students flail in large classes and ultimately dropout. Again, this isn’t universal, but it is common and, again, obvious to anyone who’s spent time at the front of a college classroom.

The “college for everyone” meme is likely played out. Be ready for the apprenticeship shift and a wave of federal and state RFPs for innovative apprenticeship programs.

Favorite odd-but-mandatory proposal forms: LA Slavery and New York Northern Ireland edition

Experienced grant writers know that all proposal instructions must be followed as precisely as possible (though they can also be contradictory—a problem we discovered in a recent Department of Education RFP). Perhaps because of that principle, funders (or their political masters) also get the chance to include absurd or bizarre forms with RFPs. Some of our favorites include ones from City of Los Angeles Departments, since the City requires that firms it contracts with, including nonprofits, certify that the organization wasn’t been involved in slavery. For those of you keeping track at home, slavery ended in the United States in 1865 and Seliger + Associates was founded in 1993.

Today was I working on behalf of a New York client and ran into the “Empire State After-School Program,” which is a fairly standard after school program not so different from the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program or many other, similar programs. But this one is issued by the state of New York, and, amid the pile of pretty typical required documents (like “Non-Collusive Bidding Certification Required by Section 139d of the State Finance Law (OCFS-2634)”) was one that caught my attention: “MacBride Fair Employment Principles in Northern Ireland (OCFS-2633).”

Northern Ireland?

I was curious enough to follow the link to the form and found that grantees for this program apparently must certify as to whether it has ever conducted business in Northern Ireland. If it has, these instructions apply, and the applicant:

Shall take lawful steps in good faith to conduct any business operations that it has in Northern Ireland in accordance with the MacBride Fair Employment Principles relating to non-discrimination in employment and freedom of workplace opportunity regarding such operations in Northern Ireland, and shall permit independent monitoring of its compliance with such principles.

I don’t know what discriminatory practices might be common in Northern Ireland. Nor do I know why New York State in particular is concerned with this tiny corner of the world. Out of curiosity, I checked the CIA World Factbook, and it says that Ireland’s entire population is a smidgen under five million, or about 60% the size of New York City’s alone.

Somewhere back there in the haze of New York political history must be some Irish-related controversy that lives on, to this day, in the form of a form that random nonprofits providing after-school services must include or risk being rejected as technically incorrect. Keep in mind that in the good old days of 1931, the Empire State Building was built in one year and 45 days. I’m pretty sure the developer did not have to fill out a Slavery or Northern Ireland form, which likely speedup up the process. Sometimes I see the more absurd aspects of grant writing and think about cost disease and how computers have paradoxically made grant writing worse.

Sometimes a call will get you the data you need

This weekend I was working on a proposal that requires California education data. The California Department of Education has a decent data engine at the aptly-named DataQuest, so I was able to look the data up—but the data didn’t really make sense. One school in the target area, for example, had 30,700 students listed as attending. As anyone who has attended or seen an American high school knows, that number is absurd. Other data seemed off too, but I wasn’t sure what to do, so I included it as listed by the website and moved on with the rest of the proposal.

This morning, Isaac was editing the draft and noticed the dubious data, so he decided to call LAUSD’s data department. A “Data Specialist” picked up the phone and lived up to his title as he explained what’s up. The school with 30,700 students is a “continuation” school and the state data is a catch-all for all LAUSD continuation students. Moreover, the Data Specialist explained that California has odd dropout rate rules, such that it’s hard to actually, really, officially drop out; instead, the school of last attendance reports that a student has stopped attending, but that student can stay on the books until the student is as old as 21.

Some California districts also have a complex patchwork of rules and regulations regarding which kids go to which schools. Charters and magnets further complicate calculating accurate dropout rate information.

The Data Specialist ultimately directed us to better, more accurate data, which we included in the proposal. And now we know the details of California’s system, thanks to the call Isaac made. Without that call, we wouldn’t have had quite the right data for the schools. What I originally found would’ve worked okay, but it wouldn’t have been as detailed or accurate.

In short, online data systems are not as good as many people (and RFPs) assume. If you get data that doesn’t seem to make sense, you need to run a sanity check on that data, just like you should with Waze. Don’t die by GPS.

By the way: When you get helpful bureaucrats, be nice to them. We’ve written about the many bad bureaucrats you’ll encounter as a grant writer (“FEMA Tardiness, Grants.gov, and Dealing with Recalcitrant Bureaucrats” is one example). But the bureaucrats who do the right thing are too rare, and, when you find them, thank them. Many actually know a lot but almost never find anyone who wants to know what they know, and they can be grateful just to find an audience.

The right phone call can also reveal information beyond the purpose of the call itself. In this case, we learned that no one has a clue as to what’s really going on with dropout rates in California. Finding charter school graduation rate data is hard. The guy Isaac talked to said that there’s some data on charters somewhere on the state’s education website, but he didn’t know where. If he, as a LAUSD Data Specialist, doesn’t know and he works on this stuff all day, we’re not likely to. Charter schools aren’t important for the assignment we’re working on, but they may be important for the next one, so that bit of inside information is useful.

EDIT: Jennifer Bergeron adds, “Be prepared when you call. The Data Specialist in our district strikes back with a barrage of questions that I hadn’t even considered each time I call. He’s helpful because his questions often make me think more specifically than I would have on my own.”

Book Review: The Great Surge: The Ascent of the Developing World — Steven Radelet

It’s both pleasant and unusual to find a book that is at its core optimistic:

I believe that during the next twenty years, the great surge of development progress can continue. If it does, 700 million more people will be lifted out of extreme poverty, incomes in developing countries will more than double again, childhood death will continue to decline, hundreds of millions of children will get the education they deserve, and basic rights and democratic freedoms will spread further around the world.

In The Great Surge Radelet enumerates the numerous good reasons why he believes what he believes. You—the readers of this blog—may be a part of this story. Some of you may play small parts and some of you may play large parts. But forward motion depends on what you (and I) do: “While I believe this progress can occur, I am far from certain that it will. Achieving it will depend on human choices and actions in rich, middle-income, and poor countries alike.” The Great Surge is outside the typical Grant Writing Confidential reader’s domain: Most of us work in or with domestic nonprofits. Yet the story is fascinating and many of the principles described in The Great Surge apply to nonprofits of all types.

It is easy to experience myopia and to think that collective efforts aren’t working. Yet Radelet reminds us that

A major transformation is underway—and has been for two decades now—in the majority of the world’s poorest countries, largely unnoticed by much of the world. Since the early 1990s, 1 billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty.

Consider this post notice of the “largely unnoticed” news. It probably won’t go viral because it doesn’t describe war, famine, atrocities, injustice, celebrity gossip, or celebrity sexting scandals. But progress itself matters, even if it goes unheralded. In The Great Surge Radelet describes how “poverty, income, health and education, and democracy and government” have all been largely improved through a combination of better government policies, the fall of communism, technology, and, crucially, nonprofit work. Those factors must work together. Smart nonprofits have of course realized this and are attempting to make them work together.

Radelet also reminds us of how storytelling applies to how people perceive the world:

When I lived in Indonesia in the early 1990s, I arrived with a somewhat romanticized view of the beauty of the people working in rice paddies, together with reservations about the rapidly growing factory jobs. The longer I was there, the more I realized how incredibly difficult it is to work in the rice fields. It’s a backbreaking grind [. . .] So, it was not too much of a surprise that when factory jobs opened offering wages of $2 a day, hundreds of people lined up just to get a shot at applying.

Part of the grant writer’s job involves explaining things that may not be obvious to funders. Some of grant writing’s challenge involves knowing when to think inside the box and knowing when to break someone else’s “romanticized view.” Radelet got his view broken first-hand. You may not have that luxury.

One hilarious section occurs in Radelet’s review of the history of people predicting eminent population / resource disaster, which starts with Malthus and runs into the 1980s. It took economist Julian Simon and his book The Ultimate Resource to refute “those who believed that the world faced imminent disaster from population pressure and resource constraints.”

The people who tend to write about such things also usually forget that innovation tends to expand the resource pie, allow us to do more with less, and make products and services more efficient. That process depends on educated individuals interacting in dense networks that allow people to learn from each other and come up with new ideas. This process isn’t solely related to fields like battery chemistry.

I’ve read many pieces about the futility of foreign aid that ends up with NGOs (non-governmental organizations, the term used for non-US nonprofits), and, sometimes, grants for domestic nonprofits). Radelet, however, points out that “Despite the shortcomings, the bulk of the evidence shows that, overall, aid has helped support development progress.” That’s particularly true in global health. But change comes slowly—so slowly that it may feel imperceptible to those on the ground. For many of us working in many domains, the myth of Sisyphus resonates because the effort put forth feels gigantic relative to the benefits.

I’m familiar with being a foot soldier—at least with respect to grant writing and education—who affects only a tiny portion of these fields. Many of you reading this are likely to be foot soldiers too. If any presidents or senators are reading this, let me say hi and suggest that you give us a call. I know what being a foot soldier in education is like because I teach college English and technical writing; consequently, I see what colleges and universities (or “IHEs” in edu-speak) look like from the bottom.

When we work for IHEs, writing TRIO, HSI, Title III, Strengthening Working Families Initiative (SWFI), or other grants, I get to see what colleges look like from the top. I register the feelings of administrators and the needs of anonymous people who’re charged with overseeing the lives of thousands of students. I know that, from both perspectives, progress can feel incidental or impossible. Some days it feels like things are sliding backwards. But things only move forward slowly, one decision at a time, and through an incalculably large amount of human effort. Radelet is reminding us to not stop believing. Don’t lose sight of larger goals and larger progress. Don’t stop believing.


Chris Blattman gave us the original pointer to the book.

Almost no one knows what education really means and the TRIO Talent Search program

In “As Graduation Rates Rise, Experts Fear Diplomas Come Up Short,” Motoko Rich says that “the number of students earning high school diplomas has risen to historic peaks, yet measures of academic readiness for college or jobs are much lower.” It’s a fascinating story and an older one than Rich lets on: In November 1991, before we had Facebook to distract us and the Internet as a scapegoat, Daniel J. Singal wrote about “The Other Crisis in American Education.” In that crisis, we learn of “the potentially high achievers whose SAT scores have fallen, and who read less, understand less of what they read, and know less than the top students of a generation ago.” Is that true? It’s hard to say. Many of 1991’s students are now tech visionaries and writers and parents themselves. I haven’t seen strong evidence that today’s 45 year olds are substantially dumber than 1991’s, or 1971’s.

What we can say definitively, however, is that schooling consists of at least two parts. Part of schooling is widely and conventionally discussed: It imparts real skills that students eventually need to lead productive and satisfied lives. The other part is less often discussed: Schooling functions as a signal of intrinsic conscientiousness, intelligence, conformity, and so forth. Bryan Caplan is writing a book called The Case Against Education about how the signaling model either dominates in education or has come to dominate in education.* The signaling model can explain Rich’s article because schools find teaching reading, writing, math, epistemology, and motivation much, much harder than they find giving people degrees.

Real education is also quite hard to impart because students resist it. I know because I’ve been teaching college-level writing for eight years. I’ve read a quote attributed to various writers that goes, “When a writer asks for feedback, what he really wants to be told is, ‘It’s perfect. Don’t change a word.'” That of course is rarely how writing works. When students show up to class, they by and large want to be told, “You’re perfect as you are. Don’t change a thing.” That is rarely true, but showing it to be true in a way that builds skill and that might be accepted is hard.

Giving people degrees, on the other hand, is easy.

This topic is particularly germane because the Department of Education (ED) just released a new Talent Search RFP. We’ve written about Talent Search before, in posts like “Sign Me Up for Wraparound Supportive Services, But First Tell Me What Those Are.” The goal of Talent Search, and other Department of Education TRIO programs, is to get low-income and first-generation college students to attend and ultimately graduate from four-year institutions of higher educations (IHEs, which is ED-speak for a college or university that confers four-year degrees).

But it’s increasingly unclear that “college” automatically adds a huge amount to earnings. America has a rapidly growing number of waiters, Uber/Lyft drivers, bartenders, baristas, barbers, and other service-sector workers who have college degrees employed in jobs that don’t require a degree. One widely noted report from the the Center for College Affordability and Productivity found that “About 48 percent of employed U.S. college graduates are in jobs that the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) suggests requires less than a four-year college education.” That is … distressing. Or depressing. Whatever it means to you, it is definitely true that a large cohort of college grads spend years doing things that may be fun but aren’t all that remunerative, often accumulating huge debts along the way.

The ED remains somewhat behind the education research frontier. At the ED, college degrees continue to inspire near-religious devotion. We don’t suggest that you tell the ED in your Talent Search proposal that college degrees aren’t magical. As a grant applicant, you may want to cite the research above, but only to explain how your proposed Talent Search program is so sophisticated that you’re aware of the research showing that “college” is a grab-bag of all kind of things, many of which are either signals or which don’t pay off for degree holders. Can a random Talent Search program overcome the problems of correlation and causation implied by the ideas I’ve cited above? I doubt it. But there’s no reason you can’t say you can. There is a time and a place to discuss real education and the real world. Your Talent Search application isn’t it.


* Watch this space for a review when it does appear.

Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change From the Cult of Technology — Kentaro Toyama — Book Review

Everyone working in any facet of education and educational nonprofits needs to read Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change From the Cult of Technology; put down whatever other books you’re reading—you are reading, right?—and get a copy of this one.

geek_HeresyIn it, Kentaro Toyama describes how computers and related technologies are not a panacea for education or any other social service fields. He writes that, “like a lever, technology amplifies people’s capacities in the direction of their intentions.” Sound familiar? It should: we’ve written about “Computers and Education: An Example of Conventional Wisdom Being Wrong” and “How Computers Have Made Grant Writing Worse.” We’ve been writing grant proposals for programs that increase access to digital technologies since at least the late ’90s; for example, we’ve written numerous funded 21st Century Community Learning Centers proposals. Despite all that effort and all those billions of dollars spent, however, it would be polite to say that educational outcomes have not leapt forward.

As it turns out, the computers-in-education trope is part of a general pattern. After years in the field, Toyama eventually realized that technologically driven educational projects tend to follow stages: “the initial optimism that surrounds technology, the doubt as reality hits, the complexity of outcomes, and the unavoidable role of social forces.” That’s after Toyama describes his work in India, where he discovers that “In the course of five years, I oversaw at least ten different technology-for-education projects [. . .] Each time, we thought we were addressing a real problem. But while the designs varied, in the end it didn’t matter – technology never made up for a lack of good teachers or good principals.” Studies of the One Laptop Per Child project show similarly disappointing results.

Chucking technology at people problems does not automatically improve the people or solve the problem: “Even in a world of abundant technology, there is no social change without change in people.” Change in people is really hard, slow, and expensive. It can be hastened by wide and deep reading, but most Americans don’t read much: TV, Facebook, and the other usual suspects feel easier in the short term. Everyone who thinks about it knows that computers are incredibly useful for creating, expressing, and disseminating knowledge. But they’re also incredibly useful for wasting time. Because of the way computers can waste time and drain precious attention, I actually ban laptops and phones from my classrooms. Computers and phones don’t help with reading comprehension and writing skill development. That primarily happens between the ears, not on the screen.

Problems with laptops in classrooms became apparent to me during my one year of law school (I fortunately dropped out of the program). All students were required to use laptops. During class, some used computers for the ends imagined by administrators. Most used them to gossip, check sports scores, send and receive nude photos of classmates, etc. And those were law students, who’d already been selected for having decent discipline and foresight. What hope do the rest of us have? Laptops were not the limiting factor in my classes and they aren’t the limiting factor for most people in most places:

Anyone can learn to Tweet. But forming and articulating a cogent argument in any medium requires thinking, writing, and communication skills. While those skills are increasingly expressed through text messaging, PowerPoint, and email, they are not taught by them. Similarly, it’s easy to learn to ‘use’ a computer, but the underlying math skills necessary for accounting or engineering require solid preparation that only comes from doing problem sets—readily accomplished with or without a computer.

Problem sets are often boring, but they’re also important. I tell my college students that they need to memorize major comma rules. They generally don’t want to, but they have to memorize some rules in order to know how to deploy those rules—and how to break them effectively, as opposed to inadvertently. Computers don’t help with that. They don’t help with more than you think:

Economist Leigh Linden at the University of Texas at Austin conducted experimental trials in India and Colombia. He found that, on average, students exposed to computer-based instruction learned no more than control groups without computers. His conclusion? While PCs can supplement good instruction, they don’t substitute for time with real teachers.

The obvious counterpoint to this is “yet.” Still, those of us who have computers and Internet connections are probably sensitive to how much time we spend doing stuff that might qualify as “work” versus time spent on YouTube or games or innumerable other distractions (pornography sites are allegedly among the largest sites, measured by megabytes delivered, on the Internet).

Moreover, the poorer the school districts or communities, the harder it was to setup and maintain the equipment (another challenge many of us are familiar with: Don’t ask me about the fiasco that upgrading from OS X 10.6 to 10.10 entailed).

In addition, Toyama points out that there is a long history of believing that technology in and of itself will ameliorate human problems:

We were hardly the first to think our inventions would transform education. Larry Cuban, a veteran inner-city teacher and an emeritus professor at Stanford, has chronicled the technology fads of the past century. As his examples show, the idea that technology can cure the ills of society is nothing new. As early as 1913, Thomas Edison believed that ‘the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system.’ Edison estimated that we only learned 2 percent of the material we read in books, but that we could absorb 100 percent of what we saw on film. He was certain that textbooks were becoming obsolete.

Oops. Radio, TV, filmstrips, overhead projectors and other technologies were heralded with similar promise. The problem is that technology is much easier than motivation, concentration, conscientiousness, and perspicacity.

Some quotes should remind you of points we’ve made. For example, Toyama says, “Measurement undoubtedly helps us verify progress. There’s a danger, though, of worshipping the measurable at the expensive of other key qualities.” That’s true of many grant proposals and is consilient with our post on why evaluations are hard to do. Measuring what’s easy to measure is usually much easier than measuring what matters, and funding authorities rarely care in a deep way about the latter.

In his chapter on “Nurturing Change,” Toyama notes that individuals have to aspire to do more and to do better in order for a group or culture to see mass change. This is close to Robert Pirsig’s point in Lila’s Child: An Inquiry Into Quality, which extols the pleasure and importance of of craftsmanship. Defined broadly, “craftsmanship” might mean doing the best work you can regardless of who’s watching or what the expected consequences of that work might be.

Geek Heresy is not perfect. Toyama repeats the dubious calumny that the poverty rate “decreased steadily [in the United States] until 1970. Around 1970, though, the decline stopped. Since then, the poverty rate has held steady at a stubborn 12 to 13 percent [. . . .]” But the official rate is likely bogus: “If you look at income after taxes and transfers you see that the shape of American public policy has become much friendlier to the poor during this period.” Or consider this reading of the data, which finds the “Adjusted percent poor in 2013 [is] 4.8%.” This also probably jibes with what many of our older readers have actually experience: Most manufactured goods are far, far cheaper than they used to be, and official definitions of poverty rarely account for those. On a non-financial level, far more and better medical treatments are available. In 1970 there was no chickenpox or HPV vaccine, regardless of how wealthy you were.

The flaws in Geek Heresy are minor. The important point is that technology will not automatically solve all of our problems and that you should be wary of those who think it will. Until we understand this—and understand the history of attempting to use technology to solve all of our problems—we won’t be able to make real progress in educational achievement.

Sean Parker Writes about the New Group of Billionaire Hacker Philanthropists and Forms The Parker Foundation with $600M

Sean Parker of Napster and Facebook fame is a very smart guy, and he recently wrote “Philanthropy for Hackers;” the essay posits that newly minted tech billionaires are “hackers,” like himself, Mark Zuckerberg, and the Google guys, who collectively represent a new wave in philanthropy:

The barons of this new connected age are interchangeably referred to as technologists, engineers and even geeks, but they all have one thing in common: They are hackers. Almost without exception, the major companies that now dominate our online social lives (Facebook, Twitter, Apple, etc.) were founded by people who had an early association with hacker culture . . . Hackers share certain values: an antiestablishment bias, a belief in radical transparency, a nose for sniffing out vulnerabilities in systems, a desire to “hack” complex problems using elegant technological and social solutions, and an almost religious belief in the power of data to aid in solving those problems . . . At the same time, they are intensely idealistic, so as they begin to confront the world’s most pressing humanitarian problems, they are still young, naive and perhaps arrogant enough to believe that they can solve them.

The above paragraph, as well as most of Parker’s other points, are true and well considered (and they complement our review of Ken Stern’s With Charity for All). Perhaps more importantly, Parker is walking the walk by funding the newly minted Parker Foundation with $600 million. It’s great that billionaire hackers are learning to give away their money (and there are only so many 1,000 foot yachts and $50M penthouses one can buy—even billionaires reach diminishing marginal utility for luxury goods).

Parker does not, however discuss how average nonprofits funded by these new foundations would actually deliver human services to address humanitarian problems. While this might have not made the editorial cut, I suspect that he’s probably not too familiar with most nonprofits and how they work. Maybe he is only looking for Givewell.org-style nonprofits.

A quick look at The Parker Foundation website reveals that this is a foundation that does not accept unsolicited proposals. While there are some interesting thoughts and a clever PERT diagram on the site, there are no submission guidelines. Although not explicitly stated, The Parker Foundation has to find your nonprofit and contact you, instead of your agency submitting a proposal. This reverse access to funding logic is used by a fair number of foundations, whether they are old school or nouveau riche. But I’ve never understood why anyone thinks this approach is a good idea.

This approach to giving away foundation grants reminds me of the hokey ’50s TV series, The Millionaire. Every week the eccentric millionaire gave $1 million to some sad case person he’d never met to help them solve their life crisis. This was more or less a scripted version of another odd ’50s reality style series Queen for a Day.* It seems that Sean and/or the probably also idealistic foundation staff believe they can somehow not only identify important humanitarian problems, but also which nonprofits are likely to have good solutions. I have no idea how they do this, since, as Jake wrote, evaluating human services programs is hard to do.

I’m often asked by clients how to cozy up to funders like The Parker Foundation (or the much larger Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which in most cases also does not accept unsolicited proposals). I tell them they should hang out at private airport terminals, since Sean, Bill or Melinda are unlikely to be found in a middle coach commercial airline seat waiting to be chatted up—think private jets and other places rich folk hang. The sad truth is that, unless you happen upon a foundation founder at Trader Joe’s**, you’ll just have to hope that one of their foundation program officers stumbles across your nonprofit. This, of course, is particularly unlikely to happen to a newly formed nonprofit, which is actually more likely to have an innovative idea than an established nonprofit with a social media consultant to get them noticed.

Seliger + Associates could have helped The Parker Foundation design their grant application process and submission guidelines to reflect the way human services are actually delivered. Only one foundation in 22 years has contacted us about helping them with their grant submission process, however, and they didn’t hire us. Whether or not the source of a foundation’s assets is a successful hacker billionaire like Parker or a more pedestrian scion of the Walton clan, the foundations themselves invariably have founders, board members and staff, who don’t have a frame of reference for nonprofit culture and are idealists, or as we call them true believers. True believers, however, don’t run most nonprofits and, unlike most foundation funders, experienced nonprofit managers know the difference between the real world and the proposal world. Nonprofits often game, deliberately or not, the good intentions of idealistic funders.


* My mom was a huge fan of both shows and I actually went to a taping of Queen for a Day in Minneapolis when I was about 5—she was astounded that her sad tale of woe, submitted on an index card before the taping, didn’t result in her being selected to receive a dime store tiara, dozen long stemmed roses and whatever else the Queen got that day.

** When Jake was a teen, we lived in Bellevue, WA, close to the headquarters of Microsoft. Neighbors and friends told stories of running into Bill at the Dairy Queen or the lunch buffet at an Indian restaurant near the Microsoft campus. Although Jake loved that buffet and DQ, and we often went to both, we never ran into Bill. I did, however, sometimes run into Steve Balmer, but I’ll save that story for another post.

Trying to Give Away Universal Pre-Kindergarten (UPK) or Early Head Start (EHS)

We worked on a bunch of New York City Universal Pre-Kindergarten (UPK) and federal Early Head Start (EHS) proposals last year, so we read with interest Katie Taylor’s NYT story “In First Year of Pre-K Expansion, a Rush to Beat the School Bell.” New York is apparently having a tough time giving away valuable free stuff. The City and/or its UPK grantees have had to hire “enrollment specialists”—who we like to call “Outreach Workers” in proposals—to convince people to take the slots.*

This is strange: imagine Apple trying to give away MacBooks and having trouble finding enough takers. The 5th Avenue Apple Store would become even more of a disaster zone than it already is.

Usually it’s not hard to maintain a waiting list for UPK or EHS, but keeping the census up can be difficult. Parents sometimes enroll their kids and then don’t actually bring the kids (this is a specific example of the more general problem of people not valuing what they don’t pay for). Nonetheless, the need to advertise free stuff contradicts the de Blasio quote in the story:

“Parents get what this means for their kids,” the mayor said. “They understand the difference between their child getting a strong start and not getting it.”

Right.

There is another interesting moment in the story: “It is critical to Mr. de Blasio’s credibility that the program ultimately be seen as successful.” The key words are “be seen as.” The program doesn’t have to be successful; it only must be perceived that way. That’s true of virtually every government-funded grant program.

Smart applicants know his and tailor their proposals, reports, marketing, and other material appropriately. In the grant world there are no failures; there are only programs that need more money and time to thrive with ever-greater success, leading to a glorious future when the next five-year plan has been fulfilled.

One can see this principle at work in “Thoughts on the DOL YouthBuild 2012 SGA: Quirks, Lessons, and, as Always, Changes,” where we describe how “the DOL is implicitly encouraging applicants to massage data.” One of our clients didn’t realize this and submitted self-reported data not to the DOL’s highly improbable standards. Our client didn’t realize that the DOL doesn’t want to know the truth; the DOL wants to be told that they’re still the prettiest girl at the dance.

In general we are not hugely optimistic that early childhood education is going to have the widespread salutary effects regularly attributed to it by its defenders. But we stand, as always, on the side of truth and the side of the organizations we work for—our job is always to get the money and let researchers fight it out elsewhere.**

EDIT: At Slate.com Alison Gopnik adds that “New research shows that teaching kids more and more, at ever-younger ages, may backfire.” Presumably anyone who has spent any amount of time around two to five year olds is aware of the… challenges… in the approaches mandated by UPK and EHS.


* Incidentally, this:

“Good morning,” she said, approaching a young couple at a playground in Brownsville this month. “Do you know any 4-year-olds?”

Is the same sort of thing that people who call themselves “pick-up artists” or “gamers” do. Shanté Jones probably isn’t as polished, but I hope she has read How to Win Friends and Influence People. I prefer the pre-1981 edition which is less politically correct but also a useful reminder of what people, or at least one person reflecting on his cultural milieu, thought in the 1936s. “Cultural milieu” is also a good proposal phrase.

** James Tooley’s book The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey Into How the World’s Poorest People Are Educating Themselves is also good on this subject.