Elon Musk vs. the Environmentalists – Some Lessons

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One of the core values of our team is: we face and solve brutal realities.

Another on of our values is: we ask why. 

Recently, at a team retreat, we read and discussed Musk’s biography. It is well worth reading.

In reading the book – and reflecting on our values – I was struck by how Musk differs from many environmentalists.

Facing the Brutal Reality of Climate Change

Both Musk and the environmentalists care about the future of humanity.

Both Musk and environmentalists believe that humanity is at-risk due to human induced climate change.

In this sense: each has faced the brutal reality of the dangers of climate change.

Because of this brutal reality, environmentalists are doing important policy and conservation work.

Because of this brutal reality, Musk launched Solar City and Tesla.

Facing the Brutal Reality of Single Planetary Existence 

But Musk, in considering the threat of environmental disaster, did not stop asking “why” when it comes to the risk of human extinction.

Rather than being satisfied with the (true) morality tale of humans destroying the planet; he kept on asking why humans were so exposed to environmental collapse on Earth in the first place.

The answer is of course obvious: Earth is the only planet we live on. As it goes, so do we.

In terms of human continuity, it is very fragile to only live on one planet. Ultimately, even natural environmental shifts (volcano explosion, meteor, etc.) can destroy humanity. Musk realized this was a major problem that many environmentalists did not seem to be working on.

Yes, slowing human made climate change is important, but it is only a stop-gap solution. Leaving Earth is the more sustainable solution.

Completing this logic pathway (of asking why humanity is truly at risk) only requires the knowledge one might pick up in high school.

Ultimately, getting  down to the root solutions is as much as about mental habits as it is about knowledge: facing brutal realities, continuing to ask “why,” having the boldness of vision to put forth a solution – this is what is needed…. as well as having the operational capacity to make a good attempt to realize this vision.

It is rare that all these qualities sit in one person. This is what makes Musk so special.

And it is why we have Space X.

Our Work 

I’d like to think that some of our greatest successes in New Orleans were because we faced brutal realities and we asked “why” a lot.

Some of our biggest failures likely came from a failure to live out these two values.

When it comes to facing brutal realities, I find the following to be of use: soberly analyzing existing performance data; reading the criticisms of thoughtful people in other tribes; taking the time to quantitatively role forward your expected impact over 10-20 years.

When it comes to asking “why,” I find the following to be useful: sitting on potential solutions before acting on them; setting-up a culture and process for rigorous team questioning; having a board of directors that constantly questions your work; reading broadly to build-up false solution pattern recognition.

 

Black Oakland Moms vs. Black Lives Matter

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I. Black Lives Matter 

I have immense respect for Black Lives Matter.

In a previous post, I reflected on how the movement has affected me.

But it will come to no surprise to anyone that I disagree with their call for a moratorium on charter schools.

II. Black Mothers in Oakland 

Recently, Black mothers in Oakland published an op-ed where they detailed why they disagree with Black Lives Matter’s call – as well as the NAACP’s call – for a moratorium on charter schools.

You should read their entire piece. It is powerful.

Here is an excerpt:

Like everyone else in our group, Mama recognizes that not all charters are great or even good. We know that while many charters play by rules that require them to accept and educate all children who come to them, some break the rules — and no one should stand for that.

But in this case, she saw a path to interrupt the intergenerational struggle of her family, and like a responsible parent, she took it.

Her choice was a personal one, not a condemnation of district schools. And for our group, exercising this choice requires personal sacrifice, while also dedicating our time working toward solutions that will strengthen the quality of education in community district schools.

We love our communities and know a quality school down the street is the sign of a community’s progress.

As our communities change, so will our choices. But it’s a choice we get to make. And our group is unanimous in asking that no one take that option away while claiming to speak in our name.

III. Segregation in Oakland 

Another piece, via KQED, also recently came out about education in Oakland. This piece detailed how segregated Oakland’s educational system remains, despite the fact that many people in Oakland profess a deep value for diversity.

The headlines says it all:

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IV. The False Liberalism of Charter Moratoriums and Neighborhood Schools  

So what happens when Black Lives Matter calls for a moratorium on charter schools and liberals cling to segregation via neighborhood schools?

You get a system where minority children are forced to attend bad schools because wealthy white people protect their schools via property values and Black Lives Matter abolishes the primary policy vehicle that might allow for better schools to be created in poor neighborhoods.

Black families are squeezed from both sides: they can’t access existing wealthy neighborhood schools and they can’t access new schools in their own neighborhoods.

Or to put it another way: the seemingly innocent desire to maintain neighborhood schools and protect school districts ends up having devastating consequences for black children.

V. Black Diversity

The conflict between Black moms in Oakland and Black Lives Matter should make it clear that black thought is not monolithic.

Black people disagree about a lot of things. Conversations with my African-American father made this clear to me at a young age. He often disagreed with various black thought leaders and would describe various tensions across black thinkers.

Often (as with white people), black disagreements occur along class lines.

Upper class, middle class, and lower class black people disagree about a lot of things – and classicism is rampant in the black community just as it is in most racial communities (my mother is Indian and the caste system epitomizes awful within race classism).

So I was not surprised at all that Black moms in Oakland disagreed with Black Lives Matter and the NAACP.

VI. Black Children Matter

Every child deserves an amazing school.

Given our nation’s history, black children deserve especially amazing schools.

We should support policies that give black children access to amazing schools (policies such as unified enrollment), and we should also support policies that allow educators to open amazing schools for black children (policies such as charter schools).

Supporting these policies will require some sacrifice. White people will have to give up their chokehold on exclusive neighborhood schools. And black people will have to pressure an institution (school districts) that have been a source of historical pride and employment.

None of this is easy, but it’s all worth fighting for.

 

Every Mentor Should Become Your Peer

I. Rigorous Thinking and Effectiveness 

The most effective people that I’ve worked with, or engaged with online, are extremely rigorous thinkers.

This, in some sense, is satisfying.

To the extent that the connection between effectiveness and rigorous thinking is causation rather than correlation, then increasing the rigor of one’s thinking can help lead to greater effectiveness.

II. Implicit and Explicit Instruction 

Of the extremely rigorous thinkers I’ve interacted with, only some of them are good at explaining why they think the way they do.

All of them, on the other hand, have been good at telling me when my thinking has not been rigorous enough.

Given the above, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to take their implicit and explicit instruction in order to improve myself.

One incredibly positive aspect of the internet is that it opens up thousands of avenues to learn how other people think.

III. Mentorship 

Another way to say all this: the value of a mentor (either in person or online) is that she should significantly increase the rigor of your thinking.

When you communicate with her, you should run as many cycles of feedback as you can –  pitching your ideas, getting her critiques, and learning.

But, at some point, this can lead to laziness: you might rely on your mentor to do the thinking for you rather than doing it yourself.

One way to test your potential laziness is to continually take stock of the delta between the rigor of your thinking and the rigor of your mentor’s thinking. If you are not closing the gap between the rigor of your thinking and your mentor’s thinking, then you are, in some sense, exploiting your mentor.

Ultimately, every mentor should become your peer. This should be the goal of all involved.

IV. My Journey in Unrigorous Thinking 

For whatever it’s worth, my biggest obstacles to rigorous thinking have come from the following:

1. Yearning for Silver Bullets: Very few quick fixes exist for hard problems. In part, I think I was drawn to law school because of the idea that passing the right law could fix things quickly. As it happens, this is very rarely true. Hard problems tend to have decade long answers.

2. Yearning to Have My Problems Solved: Related but slightly different: when confronted with thorny day-to-day problems, I’ll sometimes gravitate toward the easiest or first solution rather than taking the time to rigorously analyze the issue. This is nothing more than intellectual laziness but it is difficult to control, especially when you’re moving fast and making a lot of decisions each day.

3. Ignoring Politics: I’ve also succumbed to spending a lot of time on ideas or programs that never had a chance of being political viable.

4. Ignoring Executing at Scale: Even ideas that might be politically viable may not be possible to scale operationally. Especially earlier in my career, I deeply underestimated execution as a limiting variable.

5. Wanting to be Agreeable: The desire to please or get along with others sometimes trumps my effort to push to get to the right answer.

Those are the big ones: I could have avoided many of the biggest mistakes of my career had I been more rigorous at avoiding these pitfalls.

I suspect I’m not the only person in my line of work to make these types of mistakes.

V. Thinking More Rigorously Hurts Until It Becomes a Habit 

For all of the above issues, there has either been a professional failure or extremely direct piece of feedback that has provided a wakeup call that I need to be thinking more rigorously.

Even after knowing I have a problem with the way I think, many times the only way I’ve been able to make progress  has been by being exposed to leaders who are adept at avoiding these pitfalls.

This often all rather painful.

For me, it literally hurts to think more rigorously in an area where I have not previously been a rigorous thinker.

In some instances it feels like being a child who knows his parents are right but doesn’t want to admit it even though it is in his best interest to (1) admit it and (2) incorporate his parent’s way of thinking into his world view.

Eventually, it gets less painful – and then it becomes a habit.

And then it’s on to the next one.

VI. Accountability is an Accelerant 

One last point: putting yourself into situations with high accountability for outcomes is one of the best ways to increase the rigor of your thinking.

If you are not accountable for outcomes, then you will be tempted to avoid the pain that comes with thinking more rigorously.

If you are accountable for outcomes, then the pain of potential failure helps offset the pain of thinking more rigorously.

The Current Brutal Reality of Education Reform and Wage Growth

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Going from 16K to 18K in Annual Wages 

Last week, I did a post on Fryer and Debbie’s excellent new study on the Texas charter sector.

I emailed the authors about my hypothesis that the growth of high-quality charters – even if they aren’t that much better than average traditional schools – could still be of great value if these new charters displaced chronically failing schools.

Roland was kind enough to respond but pushed that even if my hypothesis is true, the story still might be a depressing one.

His point: the numbers from his study indicate that even if we replaced all these failing schools with high-performing charters, we’re still only talking about ~1-2K in extra earnings per year for these students.

Given that many of these students end up lower income brackets, this might mean going from 16K to 18K a year in annual salary. Hardly game changing in terms of life outcomes – and surely not a ticket to the middle class.

Confronting this Potential Reality

When a study tells you what you don’t want to hear, the first reaction is often to not deal with it (in some ways I did this in my previous post).

So everyone in education reform needs to deal with this potential reality: there is some possibility that the best that education reform has to offer can only, on average, move a student from 16K to 18K a year.

Of course, this is only one study of one state. We don’t yet know if these numbers will hold under different contexts, methodologies, or timeframes.

But, at the very least, your belief that a great school can radically increase wages should be a little lower after reading this study.

Other Considerations

I’m still mulling this over, but in conversations with Roland and folks I work with, certain ideas bubbled up:

The data doesn’t capture recent improvements: A lot of the best charters have only really started focusing on college and career over the past 5 years or so. As such, the students who received the full suite of redesigned high schools, counseling, and career support aren’t represented in this study. To the extent you believe the best charters are problem solving machines, you might believe this to be true.

The work is generational: Perhaps reformed schools can only, on average, push students who would have been in deep poverty to achieve average poverty / lower middle-class status. And perhaps their children, who will grow up in better educated environments, will the be ones  to more fully make it into the middle class. But this story could be unwound through raised expectations: if we told kids they were going to make it to the middle class, and they don’t, how will they react?

Colleges are the bottleneck: Perhaps these real gains in learning are being wasted by ineffective two year and four year colleges – and that without higher education reform we won’t be able to translate K-12 gains into wage increases.

Society is tough: Just because you’re better educated doesn’t mean you can overcome racism, lack of social capital, and an over-reliance on signaling.

More interventions are needed: Great schools can’t solve everything; interventions that work on family poverty, health, and parenting are needed for schools to really move kids as far as they need to be moved.

The schools aren’t really that good: A bunch of teaching to the test just jacks up crystallized knowledge but doesn’t really give kids the human capital qualities they need to succeed in the workforce.

What Do you Do in the Face of Ambiguity?

Leaders need to make hard decisions in the face of incomplete data.

Often times, this means relying on some combination of probabilistic thinking, intuition, ideology, and philosophy.

But, at some point, you need to walk away if the data is telling you what you’re doing is not working.

I don’t think one study is enough to walk away from the promise of urban charter schools, especially since they’ve achieved so much on less penultimate markers.  I think there’s a lot more experimentation and research that needs to be done to help us understand if we can translate academic gains into wage growth.

But it’s worth thinking about when you would walk away.

Because if there is no point at which you’d walk away, then what do you really stand for?

An Alternative Interpretation of the Fryer / Dobbie Texas Charter School Study

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Roland Fryer and Will Dobbie just published an excellent study on the Texas charter school sector.

But it’s unclear to me that they captured a very important implication of their research.

I. Study Overview

The study found that charter schools in Texas, on average, have no impact on test scores and a slightly negative impact on earnings.

More interestingly, the study found that No Excuses charter schools increase test scores but only have a small and statistically insignificant impact on earnings.

Their paper ends with this cautionary statement:

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II. Walking Through Low Effect Size and High Effect Size Schools 

The famous Anna Karena quote goes something like this: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

I think the opposite is true of schools.

When I visit low effect size schools, I am often saddened by the level of dysfunction. Students walk the halls aimlessly, teachers seem woefully unprepared for working in a low-income environment, and the principal generally spends her day putting out fires.

When I visit high effect size schools, I’m often struck by how different they are. While most hit the basics of a calm culture and thoughtful instruction, they vary greatly in atmosphere, curriculum, and staffing models – as well as the overall student experience. A Summit school is very different than a Collegiate Academies school, despite both achieving high effects. Even No Excuses schools can feel fairly different from each other, though they do tend to gravitate around some core practices (that Fryer has helped illuminate).

I also think I would struggle mightily in a blind walk through of .1 and .2 effect size schools; it is highly unlikely I would be able to tell you which school has which effect.

So while it’s easy to identify schools that are a total mess, it’s a little difficult to tease out what’s going well in non-dysfuctional schools, as well as to distinguish between high-performing and very-high-performing schools.

III. Bad Schools Have Bad Effects on Earnings, Good Schools Have Neutral Effects on Earnings

I found this to be the most interesting chart in the study:

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What you see here is that going from (-.2) to (0) effect really matters for earnings. This is indicated by the rising slope in the bottom left quadrant.

Interestingly enough, once you hit (0) effect, going to (.2) effect has little effect on earnings. This is indicated by the relatively flat slope in the the bottom right quadrant.

In short, getting rid of bad schools could have a major effect on the earnings of graduates in an education system (assuming our economy is not a zero sum signaling game).

In a sense, this fits my experiences in spending time in schools. It’s very easy to see how a totally dysfunctional environment could negatively impact students, whereas it’s a little more difficult to tease out the additional impact on students once the basics are in place.

IV. Portfolio Management: What Happens When Charter Schools Grow?

In a world where states and districts are managing their portfolio of schools, the growth of functional schools will be accompanied by the phasing out of dysfunctional schools.

In the best possible world, the growth of new effective charter schools will be accompanied with a reduction in under-performing traditional and charter schools.

Overtime, a system can potentially rid itself of failing schools.

This is what happened in New Orleans.

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While the above analysis is more weighted toward absolute scores (rather than effect sizes), my hunch is that the story would stand with effect sizes as well (I have not run this data yet).

I think much of New Orleans’ gains were driven by the phasing out of failing schools.

It is much less clear to me that schools in New Orleans, to date, have figured out to crack the code of creating schools that are radically superior to your average functioning traditional school.

Hopefully they will.

V. No Excuses Charter Schools May Allow Us to Eliminate Failing Schools and Raise the Aggregate Earnings of Low-Income Students in the United States 

So another way to interpret this study is that the growth of No Excuses charter schools could be the key to eliminating failing schools and raising wages of low-income students who would have otherwise have attended failing schools.

Two things would have to hold true for this to be the case: (1) government action or family choice lead to the phasing out of failing schools and (2) No Excuses schools can maintain their neutral effects on earnings even if they enroll the most challenging students from the phased out failing schools.

In other words, for now, the importance of charter school growth might be much more directly tied to eliminating failing schools rather than vastly outperforming functional district schools.

If this is right, No Excuses charter schools might still very well be the most important education reform of the past quarter century.

The Politics of Populism, Identity, and Charter Schools

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Over the past few weeks, both the NAACP and Black Lives Matter have publicly supported a moratorium on charter schools.

Hilary, of course, has separated herself from Obama’s education reform agenda.

So where are the politics of charter schools heading?

History

First, it’s worth remembering, that charter schools had left-ish origins, though the break with labor happened quite quickly after the first charter law was passed.

Since then, charters have mostly maintained bi-partisan federal support (Clinton -> Bush -> Obama) and generally bi-partisan state support, save for rural red states (Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, etc.) and very left leaning states (Washington, Massachusetts, etc).

This has led to charters achieving national ~10% year over year growth for much of their existence.

Present Day Populist Politics 

We are clearly in a populist moment. Bernie, Hilary, and Trump all have veered toward more populist agendas, and for good reason: widening income inequality, pressure from globalization, stagnating wages, and other difficulties have increased the popularity of populist policies.

Present Day Identity Politics

Additionally, on the left, we’ve seen an increase in explicit identify based politics, with Hilary (smartly) courting minorities who feel (rightly) excluded from the Republican agenda.

The Values of Charter Schools, Populism, and Identity 

Historically, charters have not benefited from either populist or identity politics.

Populist politics is born out of protecting what we have – or returning to a past golden age – while charter schools are about creating new options that can displace existing institutions and staff.

Identity politics is born out of affiliation – not efficiency – and charters schools have historically been advocated for on the basis of efficiency, merit, and innovation.

In short, charter schools are not well situated for either populist or identity politics.

The values associated with charters schools – choice, freedom, efficiency, innovation, etc. – are simply not the values of populism and identity.

This is not to say that the values of populism and identity are wrong (some of the values, such as community and dignity for all appeal deeply to me). But they are undoubtedly different than the values often associated with charter schools.

Charter School Enrollment Only Moves in One Direction 

In the long-run, charters will continue to grow. As I’ve written before, charter market share only goes in one direction: up.

Charter schools, unlike many reform efforts, have both a teacher and a family constituency, which means that their political power grows with every additional school that is opened.

Of course, the pace of growth will be affected by political conditions, but I’m highly skeptical that the sky is falling.

Growth will continue.

And, if recent trends, continue, overall quality will continue to improve and charters will continue to deliver academic gains for low-income children.

Is There Anything To Do? 

Perhaps. Both populist and identity politics present openings for charter advocates to broaden their coalition.

On the populist side, there is room to build bridges with those who distrust elitist authority. The idea of a group of citizens working together to form a school for their children harkens back to periods of American history that are viewed favorably by many populist.

On the identity side, African-American and Latino families continue to choose charter schools in large numbers, and the charter community could do more to build bridges with race based organizations that consist of, or serve, these families (which are generally poorer than the constituencies of more middle class identity based organizations).

I’m less optimistic that there are bridges to be built with teacher unions. Their support of the charter cap in Massachusetts, which is home to the highest-performing charter sector in the nation, seems to clearly signal that teacher unions are fighting a zero-sum market share game. If this is the case, no bridges will be built.

Keep Your Eye on Growth, Not Press Releases

While reading the headlines of Hillary’s latest press conference, or the NAACP’s latest press release, can provide a temperature check on the national mood – ultimately, the day-to-day actions of dozens of states, hundreds of charter authorizers, thousands of cities, and hundreds of thousands of educators will determine whether or not charter schools continue to grow.

Headlines will always be more fog than flashlight.

Lastly, don’t be surprised if Hilary shifts to the center as she has to govern.

Post Vacation Reflections

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I just got back from vacation. Despite some bouts of unfortunate weather, I climbed Gothic Mountain – or, more accurately, 98% of Gothic Mountain – the last 2% was a little too risky for my tastes.

Some reflections below:

1. Less Twitter: I’m going to try and cut back from Twitter. While it is an extremely valuable source of information, it also encourages shallow thinking, tribal affiliations, and consumption of information that will be meaningless in a day or two. Out on the trail, I could feel my mind slowing down – there was less speed, more curiosity, and deeper thinking. I was also shocked to see how not much had changed in the week I was offline – Clinton did that, Trump did this – and life goes on…

2. Less Caffeine: Caffeine, like Twitter, speeds up the mind and, in my case, makes me a bit anxious. Before going on vacation, I was “on” caffeine for most of the day, which I think led to less rigorous thinking and more snap judgments. I’m going to try and move one cup of coffee in the morning and 1 cup of green tea in the afternoon.

3. Deeper Reading: I read a lot. And at my worst all I am doing is scanning headlines and abstracts for information that confirms my beliefs or hunches. I need to spend more time deeply thinking through less sources of information.

4. Getting My Head Around the Corner: I feel like I have spent the last 3-4 months trying to peak around the corner of where the next 20 years of education are heading – and how this aligns to my current work. It is unclear to me that I’m operating with the right long-term strategy; or, rather, perhaps what I’m working in is an important part of the puzzle but I can’t yet see the full puzzle, which is frustrating.