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By Douglas Moran

In search of better formulated questions on school policy: part 2

Uploaded: May 8, 2015

Much of the recent discussion of school policy has been a jumble of programs, problems and other details. This is to encourage people to take a step back and think about what are the policy questions that should be part of the broader public discussions. That's right, the question I am asking here is what are the questions that should be driving these discussions. In Part 1, I asked about how to have better discussions, but not the questions themselves.

In public discussions, it is hard to influence participants except by example, so the focus here is on what would help discussion organizers?official and unofficial?make these meetings more productive by aligning how they structure meetings with how the general public approaches what is being discussed. Of particular interest:
? What are the fundamental/underlying/strategic questions that need to be resolved and publicly understood rather than being re-fought as part of every issue?
? What are the issues and concerns where the various groups of stakeholders are "talking past each other" because they are not expressed in ways that are readily understood by others? These can be problems in terminology, logical structure? What do you think would overcome these disconnects?

----Background: Thinking about "choice" (and "opportunities")----
Choice has its costs, but for many here there seems to be an unquestionable belief that more choice is always good. However, "?an almost unlimited freedom in the choice of pleasures" was one of the most discussed criticisms of the West by Soviet dissident/author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in A World Split Apart ? Commencement Address Delivered At Harvard University, June 8, 1978. That discussion had two parts: The frittering away of energies on the wrong sort of choices, and the frittering away of energies on insignificant variations within a category (my recollection is that a subsequent elaboration was to question why have hundreds of choices for athletic shoes, when a dozen choices would supposedly suffice). Although you may well disagree with many details of what he said, the underlying perspective was thought-provoking and relevant for many decisions facing the School District.

A common argument for providing more choice is that it is necessary to keep students engaged in the education process. But this argument promotes an easy answer that allows you to avoid the difficult consideration of why the current offerings are not engaging the students.

Commercial companies routinely create profiles of their target customers and decide how much variation off these profiles they are going to expend resources to reach, and how much. Although these decisions are typically informal, often intuitive, they are analogous to standard deviations in statistics. Computer- and Internet-based activities have come to enable high degrees of individualization (customization, personalization?). People here tend to forget the unusual combination of factors behind this, and are easily seduced into believing such inexpensive individualization is broadly achievable (ignoring higher overheads, limited opportunities for economies of scale?).

Most of us have experienced software and other products that initially were very useful, but the company kept adding features "because they could" and because they measured the value of that product by the length of its list of features. We all know how this story ends: Because of those features that have little or no value to anyone, the product becomes so expensive, complex and bloated that it is painful to use the features that you do want.

And companies that cater to too many trivial preferences wind up with unmanageable product lines. Ask yourself how many companies offer a gadget which comes in your choice of 20 different shades of off-white?

"OK," you say, "I see the analogy to the School District. But companies can choose to not serve customers who are unprofitable outliers, whereas the School District must serve all students." But the analogy isn't about denying service, but about what can reasonable be supported in a product offering, in this case education. In considering what choices and opportunities should be supported, there is a wide range: from basic necessities to minor preferences. For the latter, the students and their families should bear the costs, either in the inconvenience of not getting exactly what they desire, or paying to get it. The question is "Where do you draw the line?", or more likely, "where is the gray area?"

Repeating, the question about choice is not whether, but "How much?" and especially "Which?" Being more explicit about what services and activities are seen as central to the mission of the School District and what are peripheral provides a basis for discussing their cost-benefit ratio. This tends to get lost when debating individual courses and programs ("Can't see the forest for the trees").
So, how does the District get there?

----Credentialism, high school version-----
A long-running joke in the animated TV series The Simpsons is that second-grader Lisa has an obsession with her academic record, worried that the slightest blemish will keep her out of Harvard, forcing her to settle for a lesser Ivy League, such as Brown, or even worse?gasp, the horror?Stanford. So it isn't just Palo Alto, and it isn't a recent phenomenon.

The high school version of credentialism has two basic components: Protecting the credentials that you have, and pursuing additional credentials. Both damage education. For example, protecting your GPA by not taking courses that would enhance your education but in which you aren't confident that you can get a top grade. Similarly, pursuing credentials means that you maximize the number of courses that you take by doing only that portion necessary to get that top grade, thereby jettisoning much of the intended educational benefit.

If you have listened to any non-trivial discussion of stress on Palo Alto's high school students, you almost certainly hear at least one parent complain that the School District offers so many choices and opportunities that the students feel obliged to take on too much, and wind up having too little time and energy to spend on each of them, thereby not getting the benefits from those opportunities. But you may well hear that same parent advocating the importance of certain seemingly peripheral opportunities, if not adding more.

When you listen to discussion of educational policy, there often isn't even a perfunctory nod to actual education, but rather the definition of success is given in terms of the credential directly produced. For example, in the news article Palo Alto school district eyes expansion of student research program, you see "A new leg of the program is also already underway: Over spring break, (PAUSD Superintendent) McGee took a small group of Paly and Gunn students (12) to Singapore to conduct original scientific research in labs with other students at the National Junior College. They will continue their research throughout the year, prepare formal papers and ideally, submit their work for publication." (note: McGee has said that almost all the costs of the trip were paid by the participants) The credential of a student having a published scientific paper came up multiple other times in other contexts. Even when the credential is simply a shorthand for the educational value of an activity, this should raise warning flags. The effect of repetition will cause the shorthand to take on significance of its own, and the absence of the explicit statement of the intended goals and values will cause them to be neglected.

The pervasiveness of this focus on the credential is indicated by it being the highlight of a recent article on student stress in Palo Alto high schools?Push, Don't Crush, the Students (tiered subscription model/paywall) (2015-04-24/26, The New York Times, Sunday Review). Note: For anyone who has followed the local discussions, you are unlikely to find any new insights in this article?I found it interesting only for what an outsider had picked up on from the extensive local discussions.

With credentialism we seem to have one of those slippery slope situations seen throughout history: At any one point, it is easier and safer to take one more small step closer to the precipice than to try to back away (this precipice being the pursuit of more and more meaningless credentials). World War I is a classic example of this; the Cuban Missile Crisis is a classic counter-example, involving substantial courage on both sides. I have heard Superintendent McGee make brief comments about trying to figure ways to take that step backwards, starting with meetings with leaders of similar school districts and the elite colleges. No one should think that this will be easy. Because success requires widespread cooperation and agreement on the step backwards, the more players there are?and this has a multitude of them?the more likely that some will attempt to gain advantage by taking a step forward, torpedoing the whole effort.

----Premature Specialization----
When I arrived at college, we were told that much of what we learned in science and engineering classes our freshman year would be obsolete before we graduated, but that what we were learning would make it easier and faster to learn the next generation of the technology. One of the guys in my dorm ignored the admonition to not become overly focused on details and became the world's foremost expert on the intimate implementation details of the Multics Operating System (computers). Although this OS was hugely influential on future OSes (UNIX?) and on the structure of other information systems, including the Internet, Multics itself was never more than a niche product. That guy was "present at the creation" but missed the future.

Premature specialization is a double trap. The obvious one is that it inhibits the student from becoming aware of better alternatives. But the insidious trap is that even if the student becomes aware of a better alternative, human psychology is that he will be resistant to writing off his current investment (Sunk Costs). And the bigger the investment, the larger the resistance.

Colleges have long had "distribution requirements" because of their many demonstrated benefits. And college students have long resented these requirements, wanting to focus on subjects that they are already interested in and good at, and impatient to get on with their intended careers. It typically isn't until much later in their careers that they appreciate the importance of those courses (excluding the easy-A courses that the students chose to avoid the intent of the distribution requirement).
Some of the benefits of the distribution requirement are:
? They expose students to different ways of approaching problems, not only providing them with a larger toolkit, but also sensitizing them to the value of finding the right tool for the task.
? These courses expose students to different bodies of knowledge. Many advances come from interdisciplinary approaches, where the first step is knowing what other disciplines might have something to offer.
? These course may cause students to rethink whether their intended major is actually the best fit for their interests, skills and aptitudes.

Question: If we know that college students can easily fall into the trap of premature specialization, shouldn't we be more concerned about high school students doing so?

Additionally, one of the big problems of high school since time immemorial has been the various forms of social self-segregation, cliques being the most prominent example. Academic programs that provide a wide range of choice to provide early specialization may also unintentionally exacerbate the fragmentation of the student body.

----Breadth of education----
At the other end of the spectrum from premature specialization is being a dilettante: Some breadth being good doesn't mean that all breadth is good, nor that the unlimited pursuit of breadth is good. But there are some choices that can be made that have high probability of benefiting many of the students.
Reminder: This is not about what the "right" choices are, but about how to frame the questions that would facilitate making those choices.

If it isn't already obvious, I have a strong background in history. In my career as a researcher and engineer in computer science, several of my history courses were far more important than many of my undergrad computer science courses. Huh? The dominant research funders in my field were the US Department of Defense (DoD) and the intelligence agencies (passed through DARPA ?). Although they were funding open research, it was an easier sell if you could explain how your proposal might eventually benefit their missions, and knowing the history of the Cold War and World War II made that easier and more effective. Customers and clients prefer someone who understands their issues over someone who simply listens.

One particular instance stands out. In the early days of the Web, I was invited to be part of a group of researchers giving a briefing to a top official at a major US information security organization on the future of a developing category of technology. All the other presentations were predicated on the Web/Internet having essentially free resources and being populated entirely by trustworthy and diligent operators. These presentations showed no awareness of the history of information warfare despite the field having been largely created in an especially dark corner of it during World War II.(foot#1) Nor did these other presenters even take into account the lessons of the already prominent computer network security problems (such as the Morris Worm of 1988), presumably because they didn't have the historical context to think of them as anything but isolated events. As a result of my questions about the probable inherent vulnerabilities of those potential technologies, I wound up having several very interesting side discussions with that high official, and some of the inferences I drew influenced subsequent research proposals (and work).

Similarly, I would have to say that I learned a lot more about corporate management from history books than I learned from management books. For example, there is a long history of cross-fertilization between military and commercial enterprises, and the explanations of the insights are often far better from the military historians. Another example: History and engineering teach complementary lessons about the how's and why's of failure and resilience.

That said, a lot of history is poorly written and poorly taught, especially accounts that see history as primarily a mass of details, instead of lessons and cautionary tales ("What's past is prologue", "Those who do not know history's mistakes are doomed to repeat them"). And a lot of history is badly warped by the biases and agendas of the authors, but less so than the typical mass-market book on corporate management.

Another example: Some years ago, there was a trend of commercial companies employing anthropologists because they found that they often provided better insights and diagnoses of organizational problems that those in the field of Organizational Psychology and Behavior. However, for this to have started, there had to be upper-level managers that knew enough about anthropology to appreciate its relevance and value to a seemingly different problem.

Thought experiment (discussion off-topic here): Consider someone with an advanced degree in French Literature. What of their skills and knowledge would be useful in a local high-tech company? (The choice of major is because I have encountered such a person and she wasn't asking this question of herself).

Anti-credentialism: Investing in breadth of education is difficult. It has a deferred payoff, and that payoff is uncertain. It may mean foregoing a credential that would put you in a position where that payoff could be realized. Yet not having that breadth could stymie your career in future years. A diversified portfolio of knowledge is probably the best approach to an unpredictable future.

----Multiple paths to core skills----
When I was teaching Computer Programming 2 as a grad student and had a housemate who was a teaching assistant in English Composition. There were multiple times when we were grading assignments at the same time and would be wind up complaining about the same failings: convoluted structure (unnecessary complexity), lack of precision in language? (Aside: he was not the average English major?he had been a helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War). Those discussions quickly progress from merely venting to think about what we needed to give more focus to. This improved not only my teaching of programming, but my writing and editing of reports and other documents.

Different activities have different strengths in teaching core skills. Continuing the example, although writing courses are supposed to teach the importance of precision of language, they don't drive it home the way computer programming does. Similarly, in many programming courses, writing a convoluted program that works but is largely incomprehensible to others typically incurs few penalties, and is sometimes treated as a sign of brilliance.(foot#2)

Continuing the example, I would not argue that learning computer programming is a substitute for learning English composition, nor vice versa. Quite the contrary. Instead I would ask whether there are some students who would benefit by learning various core skills through computer programming before taking on intermediate levels of English composition. And others who do better focusing on structuring what they are saying, and deferring being precise about it. Or is it better to learn them in parallel?

This topic is particularly difficult to discuss because most parents have an intuitive sense of what the core skills are and whether their children are acquiring them, but are not good at describing them. Communication problem are exacerbated because the education establishment has a jargon that is very divergent from the conventional usages of those words and terms, leaving parents very frustrated.

Also, a discussion of core skills in the context of a particular set of course offerings can be useful for "the journey", with "the destination" being unimportant: It forces consideration of whether those courses are being effective and efficient. For example, some literature classes largely ignore the art of storytelling, regarding it as the province of composition classes, whereas others treat it as integral to understanding that literature. (Aside: I regard storytelling as a basic skill: It is a fundamental in effective presentations, marketing and sales, ?).

----Summary Reminder----
The topics above are some of the basic philosophical questions about education, but this is not an invitation to go to that level. This is a blog about practical issues, in this case, what are the specific aspects of these problems that could have the most near-term effect on improving Palo Alto schools.

Remember that the topic of this blog is what are the important questions to be asked, and how to frame them in ways to facilitate getting to understanding the problem, alternatives and tradeoffs. This is as a precursor to reaching decisions. This is not about answers to those questions?that is decidedly off-topic. Answers are easy (especially if they don't need to be right); good questions are hard. So I am only hoping for a start at good questions.

To illustrate an on-topic point, it is perfectly acceptable to have a brief "for instance" that would otherwise be off-topic. If you wish to reference a discussion on the specifics of an issue, recognize that you can include a link to it in your comment here. Don't worry about that link being a long, ugly string?the PAOnline software automatically displays it as the string "Web Link" that readers can click on. If there is no suitable Town Square Forum topic for the details that you think warrant discussion, you can yourself create a new Town Square Forum topic and then include a link to it in your comment here.

Also, the above are not what I think are the important questions, just some of the important questions, especially ones I think I have a sense of how to start to frame and that make an interrelated cluster. You are invited to improve the framing of these questions, and to add important policy questions of your own where you think you have a better framing that what is currently occurring in the public debate.

---- Footnotes ----
1. Information Warfare is the acquisition, protection, manipulation and falsification of information as well as monitoring who is interested in what and making inferences. It is typically the domain of various conventional intelligence, counter-intelligence and other security organizations.

2. Convoluted computer programs: celebration of: In an early version of the UNIX operating system (circa late 1970s), there was a large chunk of code at the very core of the OS that had a single comment "You are not supposed to understand this."


----Boilerplate----
An abbreviated index by topic and chronologically is available.

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