Posted on 1 Comment

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.

Posted on 2 Comments

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.

Posted on Leave a comment

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 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.

Posted on 4 Comments

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.”


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 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.

Posted on Leave a comment

The Department of Education’s Student Support Services (SSS) is Here, and We’ve Already Written the Post

A month ago we published “Department of Education Grants Are All About Going to College and Completing A Four-Year Degree,” and last week the Department of Education obliged by publishing the Student Support Services (SSS) RFP. This is one of the TRIO programs, which we’ve also written about before. These programs are explicitly about getting kids to graduate college:

The purpose of the SSS Program is to increase the number of disadvantaged, low-income college students, first-generation college students, and college students with disabilities in the United States who successfully complete a program of study at the postsecondary level.

And “complete a program of study” means, ultimately, “four-year college.” But community colleges are still great applicants because they can argue that they’re a vital step on the road to the four-year degree.

SSS is a particularly interesting program, however, because of the dollars involved: $300 million of them, with grants of $220,000/year for five years. For community colleges, who are among the better applicants for SSS, that’s a lot of money. The clients we’ve worked for who’ve gotten SSS grants have always been very happy with them.

The other interesting part of the program is the RFP release date, which happened right before Christmas break, when many college applicants go into sleep mode until after the new year. The deadline is February 2nd, so for many potential college applicants, this means effectively less than four weeks to write what is a fairly complex proposal. You can thank the ED for this lump of coal in applicants’ stockings.

Posted on Leave a comment

The Department of Labor’s “American Apprenticeship Initiative” (AAI) shows some forward thinking by the Feds

We’re interested in the Department of Labor’s “American Apprenticeship Initiative” (AAI) because it uses a word that rarely appears in the education media, federal grants, or foundation priorities: “apprenticeship.”

Apprenticeship has the ring of an out-of-circulation word, like “aesthete” or “monocle.”* Apprenticeships were common until the 20th Century, when either formal education or industrial blue-collar manufacturing jobs largely replaced them in the United States. But the number of manufacturing jobs has been declining for decades—and those that remain tend to require advanced skills—which has left formal education as the primary way we, as a society, take people aged 13 and up and try to turn them into productive—in the economic sense—adults.

The problem, however, is that a lot of people are poorly suited to sitting still and quietly for long periods of time while conducting abstract symbol manipulation. I’ve written about this issue before, in “Taking Apprenticeships Seriously: The need for alternate paths,” and a rare media account that discusses apprenticeship appeared in The Atlantic: “Why Germany Is So Much Better at Training Its Workers.” Apprenticeships haven’t gotten the attention they deserves. College dropout rates remain stubbornly high, and the solution favored by the feds is better college preparation and more wraparound supportive services in college (we discussed this in “Department of Education Grants Are All About Going to College and Completing A Four-Year Degree“). So far that hasn’t worked out well.

I’ve got an unusual perspective on formal education and college because in grad school I taught freshmen at the University of Arizona. The experience was educational for me for many reasons, one being that many if not most students seemed to have no idea about why they were in college or what precisely they were supposed to do there. Many didn’t particularly like being in classrooms, and it showed. Not surprisingly, only something like half of U of A freshmen complete a degree with six years. Students who don’t complete degrees get saddled with enormous debts and no degrees to show for it.

Not everyone is well-suited to the college environment, and that isn’t me being an elitist jerk. It’s an observation that should be obvious to everyone who has taught at a non-elite college. We—again, as a society—should have a viable system for training people who don’t like abstract symbol manipulation. They can learn and do useful things. I’m well-suited to abstract symbol manipulation—that’s my entire job—but I can acknowledge that many people aren’t.

The apprenticeship model and the university model should have porous borders—people who realize they don’t want to be apprentices should be able to pursue university education, and those in universities who realize they’d rather become electricians should be able to do that. Right now, however, public policy is oriented almost entirely towards the university model, to the detriment of many of those who don’t fit the model. We’re pleased to see the AAI as being an exception to the general principle.

* Though graduate school is still conducted largely in the apprenticeship model, which is sometimes acknowledged, since in a way no one really knows how to teach research or writing—they’re both taste-based skills, which makes them inherently difficult to teach.

Posted on Leave a comment

Department of Education Grants Are All About Going to College and Completing A Four-Year Degree

Certain things about grant writing can only be learned by reading between the lines: that requires reading individual RFPs carefully, reading many RFPs, interacting with various organizations, interacting with program officers, and the like. This is a post about reading Department of Education (DOE)* RFPs, which means reading “between the lines;” whatever else a particular DOE RFP may require, they really want kids to graduate from four-year colleges. Almost every DOE program—whether it targets four year olds, eight year olds, or eighteen year olds—has to claim that it’ll make more kids attend and graduate from a four-year college.**

The graduate-from-college goal comes from the DOE’s relentless focus on the fact that college graduates on average make a lot more money than non-college graduates. This, however, may be a causation fallacy—college graduates are different in many other respects from people who haven’t finished college—but if you’re writing a DOE proposal, you’re not trying to debate or change policy. You’re trying to give the funder what they want, and the DOE wants college graduates. Bryan Caplan is writing a book called The Case Against Education that argues education is actually a signaling arms race and that most education is socially wasteful and not particularly useful.

I don’t want to start a dispute about the correctness of Caplan’s claims or the DOE’s view in this forum—I’m being descriptive, not proscriptive, here—but I do want you to know that there is a big, often unstated corollary to almost any DOE grant program. It may be true that DOE is behind the times and has forgotten that college is probably not a panacea for economic inequality. It is true, however, that both the American political left and the American political right are broadly pro-education, since they associate education with both work and opportunity.

Your proposal should be broadly pro-college whether you’re a nonprofit, a Local Education Agency (LEA), or an Institution of Higher Education (IHE), and you should definitely announce that your program will increase college attendance and graduation rates. That’s true even for an elementary school project: argue that your program will cause today’s six year olds to graduate in sixteen years. Will your program actually increase the number of graduates? Maybe. In the real world no one really tracks the outcomes of the product of individual school districts and even if they did, that information might not be real useful: what happens if a kid moves three times and has three different school district experiences, and the graduating school is the very last one? These kinds of issues arise in many evaluation sections, and we bring the issue up because it’s a specific example of the general principle that evaluation sections are more theater than reality.

As we’ve written before, there are various “grant waves” that strike due to changes in the economy, changes in what the commentariat is discussing, changes in technology, or changes in policy / politics. From 2000 – 2008, for example, a series of programs to prevent teen pregnancy through abstinence education were big. Since the Great Recession, job training has gotten big. Next year it may be something else. Regardless of the changes, however, you should try to see them coming and be aware of what’s happening in the larger world.

Incidentally, the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) is always about two things: getting people insured and providing enhanced access to primary health care for low-income people. If you see a HRSA program, include those two components. The first has really come to the fore since the ACA passage. The second has been around longer but has arguably grown in prominence. I’m writing this at the end of 2014. In four years HRSA and DOE may have different priorities. But for now, you’re going to be a more successful applicant if you promise what we’re suggesting you promise.

* There are actually two federal “DOEs,” the Department of Education and the Department of Energy. Take it up with your congressperson.

** I don’t mean to slight community colleges, but DOE wants kids to get four-year degrees, not two-year degrees or certificates. Community colleges can’t get no respect (though they do get a fair amount of grant money). Once again, take it up with your congressperson.

About 20 years ago Isaac went to a bidders’ conference in Seattle about the DOE’s Student Support Services (SSS) program, which funds community colleges and is one of the several “TRIO” programs. The program officers droned on about pointless, obfuscated minutia; the audience was naturally beyond bored. Suddenly, a very large man sitting next to Isaac stood up and said loudly more or less: “Why do you guys keep jabbering on. You just want more kids to graduate from a four-year college. Isn’t that the whole point of TRIO?”

The audience sprang to life with applause, as the program officers admitted that was the case. Isaac talked to the guy afterward, and he’d been running a TRIO program in Illinois for years and knew SSS better than the presenters. Isaac says this is the only time he ever learned anything useful at a bidder’s conference—and this nugget was really revealed between the lines.

Posted on 2 Comments

New York City is Having Trouble Giving Away Free Universal Pre-Kindergarten (UPK) Slots—And an Early Head Start (EHS) Note

We’ve written many City of New York Universal Pre-Kindergarten (UPK) proposals—as well as various Head Start, Early Head Start and other early childhood education proposals—so we read with interest Katie Taylor’s recent NYT story “In First Year of Pre-K Expansion, a Rush to Beat the School Bell.” New York City is apparently having a tough time giving away valuable free stuff. They City and its legion of grantees have to hire “enrollment specialists”—who we like to call “Outreach Workers” in proposals—to convince people to take the free slots.* The situation is so extreme that we have to use italics.

Since it costs NYC taxpayers about $8,000/slot to provide UPK and the parents pay nothing, it may seem odd that parents aren’t lining up to get valuable free stuff. Usually it’s easy for providers to recruit parents for early childhood education programs that are paid via OPM (“Other Peoples’s Money“). Since Mayor de Blasio is a textbook modern progressive, it is probably inconceivable to him that low-income parents wouldn’t see the inherent wisdom in sending their kids off to UPK. He says:

“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. If this is true, why the need for enrollment specialists?** The answer is complex but essentially comes down to the reality that not all parents, low-income or otherwise, want their kids in a public program. Reasons are varied but include general disinterest of parents in their kids’s lives, which is demonstrated by the fairly low enrollment rates in many states in the nominally priced Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Some parents, particularly single moms, may have a boyfriend who is dealing or otherwise up to no good and doesn’t want to raise the attention of city officials if little Johnny brings a bag of meth to preschool or shows up with bruises.

The mom herself may be alcohol or drug addled. Many parents also have informal childcare support provided by older siblings, extended family, or neighbors, who are easier to access than getting the kid dressed and accompanied to formal, institutionalized preschool (“It takes a village to raise a child”). Some parents also realize there actually isn’t much education going on in UPK and similar classrooms, as demonstrated by relatively weak outcomes evaluations of the grandaddy of such efforts, Head Start, which we’ve discussed before.

There may be religious issues, as many UPK providers are run by faith-based organizations. If you’re a Catholic immigrant from Guatemala, you may not be all that enthusiastic about sending your kid to a UPK program run by an ultra Orthodox Jewish school (or vice-versa; in the proposal world diversity and ethnic harmony are universal, but the real world is often more complex). It’s an open and unsurprising secret that many faith-based early childhood education providers prefer kids of their own religion. Like many aspects of human service delivery, this is never stated in a proposal.

There is another interesting moment in Taylor’s 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, and particularly by voters. That’s true of virtually every government-funded grant program—see comment about Head Start, above. Smart applicants know this 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 that did not conform to the DOL’s highly improbable standards. DOL doesn’t want to know the truth, assuming there is such a thing in this circumstance; the DOL wants to be told that they’re still the prettiest girl at the dance. When we wrote their next YouthBuild proposal, we obfuscated the outcome with through the magic of grant writing. The agency was funded.

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 ready, as always, to write early childhood education proposals, keeping the story intact. If someone is paying you to tell them what they want to hear, you should be prepared to tell them what they want to hear.

* In any capitated service program like UPK, the participants are usually referred to in proposalese as occupying “slots,” however impersonal this sounds. A childcare center that serves 100 kids is referred to as having “100 slots.”

** Another quote from the NYT article:

“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, the person quoted in the story, 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 1930s. “Cultural milieu” is also a good proposal phrase.

Posted on Leave a comment

Lots of Crap Required in an Early Head Start (EHS) Proposal, but Here’s What’s Missing: Shit. Literally.

The latest Early Head Start FOA is blessedly shorter, in both FOA and the required narrative, than it used to be. But it’s still astonishingly detailed. Applicants must discuss attitudes towards discipline, staffing plan minutia, approved curricula, snacks, parent contact, daily plans, transportation, and on and on.

One conspicuous point that should be obvious to anyone who has spent time around very little kids is absent, however. If you have dozens of kids under the age of three, the primary staff activity isn’t going to be reading or counting or structured art or whatever. It’s going to be making sure the kids haven’t had an “accident.” Basic bodily issues will disrupt many of the best-laid Pre-K plans conceived by Washington D.C. early childhood education thinkers.

Earlier today Isaac and I were talking about the first time he walked into a Head Start classroom, back around 1978. The first thing that struck him was the relatively huge bathroom and its many, many toilets. Every one of them had a little kid occupying it. He mentioned that to the teacher, who rolled her eyes and walked away. Keeping the attention of a group of neonatal to 36-month-old kids is hard enough; keeping them clean is going to consume more time than any other activity apart from sleeping and eating.

In the Early Head Start and Head Start proposal world, however, these issues don’t exist. It would be funny to add details about potty training, or lack there of, to a narrative, and ideally to describe the issue in great, exquisite detail, and perhaps to add a validated curriculum (which we would invent, of course). Not funny enough that we’d ever do it, but definitely funny enough to contemplate the response of the reviewers. They would what—shit their pants?

Posted on Leave a comment

Someone in the Federal Government REALLY Wants School Kids Counseled, as the “School Climate Transformation Grant Program” Shows

This week’s e-mail grant newsletter included this long-winded program title: “Office of Elementary and Secondary Education (OESE): School Climate Transformation Grant Program: Local Educational Agency Grants.” The program’s purpose is to offer yet more school counseling, although the RFP uses 50 words where five will due; it says the purpose is to “develop, enhance, or expand systems of support for, and technical assistance to, schools implementing an evidence-based multi-tiered behavioral framework for improving behavioral outcomes and learning conditions for all students.” I became exhausted reading this sentence several times—it’s a nice example of bureaucratic word salad.

Sound familiar? It should. We’ve seen a spate of nearly identical program RFPs recently, including:

All five programs have subtly different project descriptions but are all intended to engage in the same basic set of activities: getting “trained” adults to do something—on a one-on-one or small group basis—with students who have been reported by teachers or other “trained” adults in the kids’ lives. You could submit a proposal for any one of these programs, change the name on the header of the next proposal, and do more or less the same thing. The only exception is the last one, YEP II, which is less a Columbine-Newtown-response-style program and more of a traditional urban youth program of the sort that have been around for forty years.

In 2012 Isaac wroteSandy Hook School Shootings Tragedy Likely to Lead to New Grant Opportunities for School Security, After School and Mental Health Project Concepts.” The programs we’re seeing the Federal government issue are the ones Isaac predicted.

At their most basic level,* these programs are really mental health early warning systems: they’re trying to figure out which ninth grader is likely to bring a gun or knife to school this week. They’re like Foucault’s famous panopticon, or the Stasi, though better intentioned. We’re not convinced the effort will be successful, but it’s happening right now, and no one in the Federal government asked for our opinion. Smart LEAs and nonprofits are going to ride this grant wave.

* Free proposal phrase.