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The effects of early childhood education programs don’t look good: a large, randomized pre-kindergarten study

There’s a large, new study out on the “Effects of a statewide pre-kindergarten program on children’s achievement and behavior through sixth grade,” and it’s important and unusual because of its results: it finds that pre-k education doesn’t help later educational or behavioral achievement and, if anything, hurts later student achievement. This study is also significant due to its comprehensiveness; the study follows 3,000 kids, who appear to be randomly assigned to pre-k services or not, and the study follows those kids for a long period of time—at least seven years, it seems, and possibly longer. I’ve not got the full manuscript yet but am seeking a copy. Most education studies are observational, in that they observe two or more cohorts, but they don’t use randomized controls, like this one does, and observational studies are particularly prone to bias. The new study is also pre-registered—that is, the authors say what they’re looking for, what success looks like, and how they’re going to measure success before they get their data. There’s a “replication crisis” in social science and medicine, because it’s possible to torture a positive result out of all sorts of data, and this study avoids most if not all of the common pitfalls.

The study’s abstract says:

Data through sixth grade from state education records showed that the children randomly assigned to attend pre-K had lower state achievement test scores in third through sixth grades than control children, with the strongest negative effects in sixth grade. A negative effect was also found for disciplinary infractions, attendance, and receipt of special education services, with null effects on retention

Wow: that’s counter to the intuition of most people, politicians involved in early childhood education, and “common wisdom.” The study is not the last word—no study is—but it is persuasive. For most practitioners, this won’t be immediately relevant, because Head Start and Pre-K For All aren’t likely to see real changes in the near term. But we may see the political winds change over time.

This post is not a policy recommendation: as grant writers, we don’t do policy recommendations, although I do think a lot of students are in college who’d be better served by alternatives, and yet society as a whole hasn’t yet figured that out or properly grokked it, even as total student loans owed passes $1 trillion. But, if America wants to do some form of daycare for all (“universal daycare”), as is proposed in the stalled Build Back Better legislation, that’s a fine goal and we should call it that, instead of pretending it’s possible to have academic, “educational” experiences for the vast majority of kids under the age of five. Four-year olds are not falling “behind,” because, except in the case of unusual prodigies, there is nowhere to fall behind. If anything, excess regimentation and premature optimization are likely to be bigger problems than “falling behind.”

I’ve long been somewhat suspect of early childhood “education”—not from studies per se, but from being around small children. Most don’t have the executive function to do much in the way of what might be called “education.” Trying to create “education” in the sense that we see with older kids or adults seems improbable for very young children. The veneer of “education” using “curriculums” like “The Creative Curriculum” and “The Creative Curriculum GOLD” that we cite in grant proposals seems faintly ridiculous; whether or not a four-year old can identify different kinds of leaves or songs or animals by name doesn’t seem to indicate how that four-year old will do in middle or high school, or college. But there’s a lot of social and economic anxiety around class, economic achievement, and housing; we’ve collectively adopted policies focused on creating scarcity, not abundance, and that’s resulted in intense, and probably pointlessly intense, competition in many fields.

Trying to indoctrinate small children into social, academic, and economic competition culture seems difficult to me, and yet that’s been one response to scarcity policies. Making early childhood teachers, who are really more like caregivers in the classroom, have degrees or advanced degrees seems like a way of raising the cost of childcare without providing much in benefits; everyday human experience seems to be sufficient for taking care of small kids. Maybe small kids are learning cultural markers and such in the early early childhood education setting that will help them later, but, if so, that later help isn’t showing up in the data. There’s a lot of desire to make education a panacea for various kinds of social and economic inequality, but that desire keeps running up against uncomfortable ideas (I won’t call them “truths,” although some might).

Head Start was launched in 1965 as on the initial programs in President Johnson’s “War on Poverty;” if there’s been a large boost in real educational attainment (which is different from “degrees achieved”), I’ve not seen it. I’ve been teaching college undergrads since 2008, and in that time my anecdotal impression is that smartphones and social media have been net bad for learning, noting however that some people do leverage Internet technologies to learn more and faster than they could without. Anecdotes are not data, but, since the late ’90s and early ’00s, we here at Seliger + Associates Grant Writing have been writing proposals for programs like the 21st Century Community Learning Centers (21st CCLC), and in that time we’ve not seen learning substantially improve from the dissemination of computers and the Internet. In 2013, I wrote a post about a pair of studies finding that computer access appears, if anything, to lower educational attainment. In 2015, I wrote about Kentaro Toyama’s book Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change From the Cult of Technology. “Computers in education” is not the same thing, obviously, as early childhood education, but both are attempts at improving education and life outcomes that are popular but may not be efficacious. If you work in the education industry with students ages 10 or higher—ages old enough for smart phones to have penetrated the population—ask those around you to look at their Apple “Screen Time” app or Android “Digital Wellbeing” controls. Those show how many minutes or hours a day a smartphone is being used, and what a person is doing on that phone. From what I’ve observed, very few people are using the book apps, the Duolingo systems for language learning, or Anki for space-repetition learning. Ask around, see what you find. Think about what that might mean.

Real education is hard. I’ve tried to impart some to students. Probably it’s always been hard and always will be. We should collectively try to do better while also understanding what might be limited, what might be futile, and what might be counterproductive. I’m struck by, at the college level, how little time is spent trying to learn how to teach more effectively, and friends who teach in K – 12 often report the same.

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Grant writers should recognize the real purpose of NOAA’s “Environmental Literacy Program”

Most social and human service agencies probably won’t notice the recently published National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) funding opportunity for the “Environmental Literacy Program: Increasing community resilience to extreme weather & climate change” program—how many nonprofits are tracking NOAA, which is probably doing interesting work that is nonetheless not relevant to a typical nonprofit’s workflow? But the “Environmental Literacy Program” is different, and those same social and human service agencies should slow down and look at this one, because the program has $5 million available for 12 grants up to $500,000 to have local community members “participate in formal and/or informal education experiences that develop their knowledge, skills, and confidence” that will help them become knowledgeable about environmental issues.” Oh yeah? What’s that mean, in practice?

Smart nonprofit executive directors who read this description will sit up straighter and think, “walkin’ around money,” because the rest of the description says participants will do things like “participate in formal and/or informal education experiences that develop their knowledge, skills, and confidence to: 1) reason about the ways that human and natural systems interact globally and locally.” In other words, a grantee for this program is nominally going to do some outreach and education, neither of which will be measured. In practice, a grantee will hire a few staff, like outreach workers and peer educators, who are (of course, of course!) going to do some environmental literacy—but they’re also going to be talking to people about what else they need. If there’s a class of 15 low-income youth officially getting “environmental literacy education,” and one mentions that her mom lost her job because the kid’s little brother needs to be watched during the day, the program staff is going to try to hook mom up with a Head Start slot and other supportive services. How else can one stretch these amorphous dollars? Well, environmental education is going to involve practicing reading skills (“What does this sentence about carbon emissions differences between bikes and cars imply?”). A canny nonprofit may do “environmental literacy” and per-capitated tutoring services paid for by a state or county at the same time, using the same staff person. Or, a nonprofit that is losing a grant to provide healthcare navigation services for Medicaid and insurance exchanges may re-train “Healthcare Navigators” to instead become “environmental literacy specialists,” and part of the intake flow for the environmental literacy education will involve checking the status of health insurance: are some participants eligible for Medicaid but not enrolled? Time to enroll them, and make sure their families are on the rolls of the local FQHC. As we’ve written about before walkin’ around money grants are very important because they become the glue that holds the agency together and if effect can be a form of paying for indirect costs.

The funding agency—NOAA—for this program may be unusual, but the ends to which the money will be put are not. This is also the kind of grant opportunity that’s easy to miss, but that we include in our email grant newsletter. Executive directors know that grants like “Environmental Literacy Education” help the doors stay open and the staff stay employed. The official purposes and the true purposes of the grant may differ.

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Links: Opioids treatment, unglamorous but important bureaucracy, Pre-K for All, and more!

* “‘Pure incompetence:’ As fatal heroin overdoses exploded in black neighborhoods, D.C. officials ignored life-saving strategies and misspent millions of federal grant dollars. More than 800 deaths later, the city is still reckoning with the damage it failed to prevent.” If your organization is working on the opioid crisis, you should give us a call, because there’s a huge amount of federal, state, and local funding for it. Rural areas are seeing and especially large burst of funding.

* “The Tragedy of Germany’s Energy Experiment: The country is moving beyond nuclear power. But at what cost?”

* America’s National Climate Strategy Starts with NEPA. Unglamorous but important.

* Officials want to clear a mile-long homeless camp on a Sonoma County bike trail. Some don’t want to go. We’re guessing that those who don’t want it to go also don’t use the bike trail or live near it.

* The hottest new thing in sustainable building is, uh, wood. If you’re doing construction-related job training, mention cross-laminated timber (CLT) in your next proposal.

* On the Chinese education system and philosophy. It’s nearly the opposite of what programs like Pre-K For All or Early Head Start attempt to do. I wonder how well it works, although that will be hard to say, since it probably takes 40 or 50 years to properly evaluate how an early childhood education program “works,” by which point the entire cultural, social, and technological environment will have changed.

* For another perspective, read me on Bringing Up Bébé, an essay that is sure to be of interest to anyone providing early childhood education services like Pre-K For All or Head Start. We collectively ought to spend more time looking at early childhood from a cross-cultural perspective and less time on making early childhood “academic.” Life is not a race. France and China seem different in key ways but surprisingly similar in some.

* “Against Against Billionaire Philanthropy.” Donations by rich people are better than not, and criticism is misguided. Foundations offer flexibility that government funding typically does not.

* “Let’s quit fetishizing the single-family home.” This would also make programs like YouthBuild work more effectively: zoning restrictions are now one of the biggest problems with any job-training program that includes a construction training element. Many of today’s challenges are really housing and healthcare policy challenges, with powerful incumbents blocking change and the powerful need for change building up.

* “The Age of Decadence: Cut the drama. The real story of the West in the 21st century is one of stalemate and stagnation.” An interesting thesis, but not necessarily one that I buy.

* Was the nuclear family a mistake?.

* How we write scientific and technical grants.

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More experiments in education and job training: Shopify’s “Dev Degree”

Lots of us know that traditional education providers offer various kinds of on-the-job training, work experience, internships, and similar arrangements with employers; in typical arrangements, someone who primarily identifies as a student also does some work, often paid but sometimes not, to get some real-world experience. But what happens if you try going the other way around?

You may have read the preceding sentence a couple of times, trying to understand what it means. Shopify, the ecommerce platform, is now offering something called “Dev Degree,” which is described as “a 4-year, work-integrated learning program that combines hands-on developer experience at Shopify with an accredited Computer Science degree from either Carleton University or York University.” On Twitter, one of Shopify’s VP’s said that “We pay tuition & salary, ~$160k over 4 yrs”—so instead of student loans, the student, or “student,” comes out net positive. Instead of identifying as someone who is primarily a student but does a little work experience, a person presumably identifies primarily as a worker but does some schooling too.

As often happens, the old is becoming new again. Before lawyers enacted occupational licensing restrictions to raise their wages, most proto-lawyers just studied under senior lawyers using an apprenticeship model. When the proto-lawyer could pass the bar and convince clients to give him money, he was a lawyer—one who’d learned on the job. Think of Abe Lincoln, who become something greater than a passable country lawyer.

I don’t think it’s an accident that Lambda School, Make School, and now Shopify School (okay, it’s not technically called that) are concentrated in tech and programming, where an extreme shortage of qualified candidates seems to intersect with extremely high demand for qualified candidates. The New York Times and Economist aren’t proposing ways to more quickly and cheaply turn English majors into journalists, because there are plenty of English majors and few journalism jobs. But these experiments in alternative education are interesting because they speak to the relentlessly rising cost of conventional education combined with onerous student loans that can’t be discharged in bankruptcy (the infamous 2005 bankruptcy “reform” act made student loans almost impossible to discharge). If there’s enough pressure on a system, the system starts to react, and Dev Degree is another example of the reaction.

We’ve been covering the “alternative education” beat in various places for a lot of reasons, one being that we do a lot of work for colleges and universities. Another is in the fact that I’ve spent some time in the basement of the ivory tower, where I’ve witnessed some insalubrious, unsavory practices and behaviors. Another is that we’ve had an uptick in stories from nonprofit clients and potential clients about their clients or participants who have relatively small amounts of student loan debt, often in the $1,000 to $4,000 range, but that the participant can’t pay off. So the participant starts school, quits or otherwise can’t finish, and then drags around this mounting debt while making minimum wage or close to it.

Yet another way to cover these stories is the potential for these kinds of systems to be applied in other fields, like healthcare tech, truck driving, and the like. Most government-sponsored job training programs focus on these kinds of fields, and they haven’t been apprentice-ized yet. But the right nonprofit or business might come along and make it so. We want to encourage change and innovation in this sector, and we know some of our clients will make change happen.

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Do “child-care deserts” highlighted in the Washington Post really exist?

The Washington Post says, “A Minnesota community wants to fix its child-care crisis. It’s harder than it imagined.” Duluth City Councilperson Arik Forsman wants to solve the “region’s child-care crisis” and the reporter, Robert Samuels, vaguely cites “studies [that] have shown… more than half of the country lives in a child-care desert — places where there is a yawning gap between the number of slots needed for children and the number of existing spaces at child-care centers.” The link in his story leads to the highly partisan Center for American Progress website, which defines a child-care desert crisis using cherry-picked data to fit this definition: “any census tract with more than 50 children under age 5 that contains either no child care providers or so few options that there are more than three times as many children as licensed child care slots.”

Numerous rural census tracks are likely not to have any child-care providers, due to vast travel distances and low population density, but could still meet the low bar of 50 young children. The second part of the definition presupposes that most parents want to place their child in child-care, ignoring the reality that there still lots of people who don’t want their child in institutionalized child-care—they have one parent who stays home or who works at home (like I did when my kids, and S + A, were young). Some parents prefer to use family and friend networks. The cost of providing child-cage to infants and toddlers is very high—imagine trying to care for 30 kids, who are not potty-trained, and go on from there.

The “crisis” is based on specious data collected to make a political point, not address the actual issues. I know because we write lots of Head Start, Pre-K For All, and similar proposals under the umbrella of “early childhood education,” which is the theme for almost all child-care grant programs. Head Start is by far the largest publicly-funded early childhood education program and emphasizes “education.” Government funders always insist that child-care providers, including Early Head Start (birth – 3), focus on “education” rather than the custodial care model that largely disappeared 30 years ago. It officially disappeared; in reality, most children under age five are mentally equipped for play far more than they are for educational activities. Still, when we write a child-care/early childhood education proposal, we always state that the program will use the ever-popular “TeachingStratgies Creative Curriculum.” In this curriculum, even very young children are supposedly taught things like “pre-reading” (whatever that is) and other quasi-academic subjects. The typical “class schedule” for child-care programs, however, includes maybe two out of eight hours in alleged academic activities, with the rest of the day devoted to things like welcome and closing circles, snacks and lunch, hand-washing, nap time, outdoor/indoor play, etc.

Many contributing factors that come together to limit child-care options: just like with the affordable housing/homelessness crisis, much of the shortage of child-care slots is due to basic zoning rules (a topic we have covered extensively), as well as strict licensing requirements. In the abstract, most people support the idea of convenient child-care—until an actual facility is proposed down the street, and then existing residents think about 60 frisky kids whooping it up on their block, with fleets of parents dropping-off and picking-up kids. This type of proposal brings out the NIMBYs in force. They will use zoning to fight this “blighting” influence—and will usually win.

Also, ever since the hysteria over the fake McMartin Preschool abuse scandal in 1983, child-care facility regulations, even for home-based child-care, have become very stringent. While likely a good thing overall, this drives up the cost of operating child-care facilities. Even Head Start programs, which are fully federally-funded, have a hard time opening new facilities and keeping them open. All child-care programs, whether for-profit or non-profit, operate on thin margins and can be sunk by regulatory problems.

Then, there’s the challenge of finding and keeping “teachers.” Since Head Start was created in 1965, the open secret has been that it’s as much of a jobs program as an early childhood eduction program. The teachers, who might have a certificate of some sort but are rarely licensed teachers, are often the same moms who put their kids in the program, creating a sort of closed-loop system.

This worked fairly well until a perfect storm recently hit. As we wrote about in early 2019 “The movement towards a $15 minimum hourly wage and the Pre-K For All program in NYC,” this effort spells trouble for all child-care programs—the Minnesota minimum wage rises to $10/hour on January 1, 2020 and is set to rise to $15/hour by 2022. Staff costs make up the vast majority of child-care program budgets and rapidly rising minimum wages mean higher fees for parents, and they require larger public subsidies (which are not available in most municipalities). Ergo, it’s much harder to open a child-care facility and keep it open, even if qualified staff can be found. With an unemployment rate of less than 4% in the Duluth area, good staff are hard to find.

In related news, “Government Standards Are Making 5-Year-Olds and Kindergarten Teachers Miserable.” It seems that the bureaucrats who make these decisions have never interacted with actual human five-year-olds.

Nonetheless, we’re delighted to add the concept of child-care deserts to the equally ephemeral “food deserts” concept we often use in proposals. In grant writing, it’s not possible to have too many Potemkin deserts to add color to otherwise drab needs assessments. And many funders are more excited about solving marginal problems than real ones, like regulatory overreach and zoning.

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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, because the existing policy and institutional infrastructure doesn’t work very well and has led to students and former students holding more than $1 trillion in debt that can’t be discharged through bankruptcy.

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 book Paying for the Party, and, while the book is too complex and interesting to summarize briefly, it describes how 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 party 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. I don’t have an immediate citation for this claim, but many researchers have found high percentages of college graduates occupying jobs that don’t require college degrees.

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.

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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.

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Parsing the Department of Education’s “Developing Hispanic-Serving Institutions” (HSI) Program RFP–Which Colleges are Eligible?

As we’ve written before, parsing an RFP sometimes seems like deciphering the Talmud. The just-issued ED Developing Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSI) RFP is a case in point.

HSI is a venerable program that provides grants to Institutions of Higher Education (ED-speak for “two- and four-year colleges and universities”) deemed to be “Hispanic-Serving Institutions.” But what is an HSI? To paraphrase President Clinton, it depends on what the meaning of “HSI” is? The RFP states:

In addition to basic eligibility requirements, an institution must have at least 25 percent enrollment of undergraduate full-time equivalent (FTE) Hispanic students at the end of the award year immediately preceding the date of application.

(Emphasis added.)

Now we have to determine what “award year” means. On page 19 of the 87-page RFP, we finally learn that award year “refers to the end of the fiscal year prior to the application due date.” Which raises the question, why doesn’t the RFP just consistently replace “award year,” which no one understands, with “end of the last federal year,” which anyone involved in federal grants knows is September 30?

This conundrum came up on Friday when I was talking about HSI with the internal grant writer for a community college we often work for. This guy is very knowledgeable about federal grants but thought the eligibility for HSI was that his college had to have at least 25% Hispanic students for one year before applying for a HSI grant. His college achieved that milestone at the start of the fall 2014 semester, or around September 1, so he didn’t think they were HSI eligible. A close reading of the RFP sections above shows that he was wrong: as long as the college met the 25% threshold by September 30, 2014, which in this case they did, the college is actually HSI-eligible.

It also turns out that ED does not certify or even maintain a list of HSIs. Instead, applicants self-certify eligibility by signing an assurance. How does a college know whether is has 25% FTE Hispanic students? The students themselves self-certify their “race and ethnicity” at the time of application and these data are aggregated by colleges.

This data gets really murky. Most Americans probably think “Hispanic” is a “race.” Not true, at least by some metrics. Those of us who work with Census data know that the Census definition considers “Hispanic” an ethnicity, not a race. From the Census website: “Hispanic origin can be viewed as the heritage, nationality, lineage, or country of birth of the person or the person’s parents or ancestors before arriving in the United States. People who identify as Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish may be any race.”

In other words, American college students self-certifying as “Hispanic” could have a partial family heritage anywhere from Spain to South America to the Philippines and many places in between. From a Census “race” standpoint, they could be otherwise black, white, Asian, Native American, or multiracial. Combined with immigration and intermarriage, this is why the population of some states, like California and Texas, either are or will be majority-Hispanic. As a practical matter, most IHEs in the southwest and south are likely HSI-eligible already; in a few more years, most IHEs across the country probably will be. This is great news for IHEs, Hispanic students and grant writers!

The above cautionary tale shows why it’s critical to closely read RFPs regarding applicant eligibility and other key factors. When I went through Air Force basic training over 45 years ago, the first class we took was “Rumors and Propaganda.” It taught us not to believe barracks scuttlebutt. The same is true in grant writing.

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Links: Bread Bags and Poverty, the App World, College, and Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

* When Bread Bags Weren’t Funny, or, we are now spectacularly rich in ways that rarely make the news.

* “Is Snapchat Really Confusing, or Am I Just Old? A 32-year-old’s hopeless quest to understand America’s fastest-growing social app.” This describes me, and I too remember old people telling me when I was younger about life before computers and so on, “What’s the point?”

* Dubious, polemical, yet: “Today’s Apps Are Turning Us Into Sociopaths.” See also Facebook and cellphones might be really bad for relationships.”

* “Why college isn’t always worth it: A new study suggests the economic return on a college degree may be a lot more modest than you think.” This better matches anecdotal yet seemingly universal observation, and it better matches work like that in Paying for the Party. The more I learn about college and about pre-school education the more skeptical I am of either as panaceas.

* What life is like for non-sports fans; a shockingly good metaphor.

* “American Schools Are Training Kids for a World That Doesn’t Exist.”

* College students use social media to be anti-social.

* Cops murder a guy on camera.

* “Orchestra in Los Angeles gives disadvantaged youth a lifeline through music.” Never before has such a project been tried!

* “Meet the [Washington State] Sex Workers Who Lawmakers Don’t Believe Exist,” from The Stranger and probably SFW.

* Employers want better technical writers but aren’t getting them.

* “Why GM Hired 8,000 Programmers.”

* “Lesbian” takes testosterone, sees personality and ideology change. This is not the piece’s actual title.

* Robots aren’t yet taking all our jobs because there aren’t enough smart human engineers to operate them. Which is too bad: the future in which we have all our material needs met and can spend all our time making art.

* “Scientists know there are more giant craters in Siberia, but are nervous to even study them,” which may be the most important article you’re going to skip.

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November Links: Vaccines Are Important, Education Reform, the Future of the World, Broadband, Cities, and More!

* Randomized Control Trials (RCTs) of Tennessee’s preschool program show that preschool doesn’t appear to improve the later school performance of those enrolled, or much of anything else.

* CDC: Many U.S. Girls Not Getting HPV Vaccine Despite Its Effectiveness.

* “A bachelor’s degree could cost $10,000 — total. Here’s how.” The short version is, “Unbundling.” I think we’re going to see some version of this tried in various places, and in the next decade we’re going to see a lot of universities change.

* Average Is Over—if We Want It to Be.

* Oklahoma senator calls out Congress for blowing money on ‘fruity’ grants.

* Which Job Skills Will Be Most Important In The Coming Years?

* “Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science?” As an additional explanation, see Philip Greenspun, “Women in Science.”

* Travel is much more boring and aggravating than people give it credit for.

* What we eat affects everything.

* If You Aren’t Technical, Get Technical. One could also replace “technical” with “literate,” although “technical” certainly has more immediate financial returns.

* The unbelievably brilliant ad campaign by Eat24, a food delivery service: “How to Advertise on a Porn Website.” Note that this is safe for work, provided you don’t work in a religious organization or elementary school.

* The most important piece and yet likely to be the least read: “We’ve Reached ‘The End of Antibiotics, Period.’

* A sad day for the OS X users among us: “Pages 5: An unmitigated disaster.”

* L.A. to unleash city-wide gigabit broadband. Awesome. Also on the good news front: “Fed up with slow and pricey Internet, cities start demanding gigabit fiber.”

* Woman from MTV demands free stuff.

* Reducing the federal prison population, which should be a major goal.

* A reinvented skillet. Isaac is skeptical because he says you can buy a perfectly good Lodge cast iron pan made in Tennessee for about $20, but I want to believe.

* Complementing the second link: “The Cancer Vaccine: Only one in three American girls is vaccinated against HPV. That will mean thousands of gratuitous cancer deaths. Why?

* “What are some of the biggest problems with a guaranteed annual income?” Isaac is very fond of the guaranteed annual income model, which was last a prominent idea in the early 70s, when he was in college, but has become a more interesting proposition as of late.

* “Simple answers to the questions that get asked about every new technology,” in comic form.

* The American Police State: A sociologist interrogates the criminal-justice system, and tries to stay out of the spotlight.

* “Overall, we Americans have a stronger attachment to U.S. dominance than to fair play or anyone’s rights.”

* “Why Aren’t Cities Taller?” The answer has important and under-appreciated implications for poverty and real wealth, and the link is connected to the link above: “Average Is Over—if We Want It to Be.”