Category Archives: Education

Public education 25 years from now

What might public education look like 25 years from now?

The future is hard to predict, but it can be fun to try. The below is a mix of hope, curiosity, thought experimentation, and wild speculation. I’m not confident any of it will happen; for some of it I’m not confident it should happen.

Early Childhood Education

Starting at the age on one, means tested vouchers are offered to every family to spend on childcare that meets a basic level of accreditation. All young children get access to nurturing care. And low-income parents who wish to work and continue building their careers don’t face childcare costs that eat up most of their income. The United States moves from an international laggard to getting close to international leaders, such as Sweden. This is expensive, but growing productivity gains have made us wealthier and Americans wisely decide to spend some of this wealth on young children.

Kindergarten to 10th Grade

Public schools morph to significantly change the power dynamics between the school district, educators, curricular providers, and families.

School district bureaucracies are paired back. A system of great schools replaces the traditional school system, with families having access to an array of autonomous district schools, charter schools, magnet schools, and private schools – all of which have much more operational control. The lines between these types of schools begins to blur, and the political fights between these types of schools subsides. Non-profit organizations run a lot more schools than today, but school districts still serve the majority of children.

A lot of entrepreneurship, a little bit of competition, and a lot of best practice sharing make all public schools better. It’s a great time to be a public school educator.

While schools get more autonomy, many schools begin to gravitate to the best learning platforms. Over a few decades, many incredible academic models are put on cloud-based learning platforms that transparently support students, teachers, and families through a rigorous curriculum and independent assessments. Some models, such as Montessori and IB have been around for awhile. Others, such as Achievement First Navigator, Khan Academy, and Summit Basecamp, are born from more recent entrepreneurship. All of these models combine both academic and social emotional development into one programmatic model. Most schools choose one learning platform but tailor it the kids they serve.

Many teachers specialize in one or more of the learning models that they are most passionate about. They gain deep content expertise in the model and grow expert at intellectually and emotional supporting students through the model’s progression. Teacher training in colleges is more grounded in supporting students in these models rather than being so heavily focused on theory. Many of the best learning platforms open their own teacher training programs for on-going educator development.

Families have a lot of great information about public schools as well as how their children are doing. Online enrollment systems provide transparent information on every public school in the area and allow for more equal enrollment access. 3rd party providers like Great Schools provide independent analysis. Because most schools are on one of the top learning platforms, families are better able to distinguish between the approaches of different public schools. The school down the road is no longer a black box. Families know what they are being promised. And the big data provided by the internal assessments of the learning platforms give families very transparent information about how their children are progressing.

In places with high rates of poverty, support services are ramped up. Physical and mental health services are provided at the school site. A mix of onsite and offsite programs serve students with severe physical or emotional needs. Social workers provide intensive services to families who are struggling the most. Data-driven Strive type programs coordinate an array of services and prevent kids from falling through the cracks.

The major increases in educator autonomy and family information do not cost much more than the current system. Overall public expenditures for K12 stay fairly flat in terms of real dollars. However, spending on support services for very at-risk students rises significantly.

Grades 11 and 12

The traditional public school system changes dramatically after grade 10. Once a student has shown mastery of secondary material, they can begin experimenting and specializing.

Grades 11 and 12 are funded with universal vouchers. Families are able to spend the vouchers on any accredited education institution, including a regular high school, a higher education institution, an apprenticeship program, working abroad, or being a subsidized employee at a great for-profit or non-profit organization.

Some kids continue at their high schools. Some kids go straight to college. Some kids begin trade school in data and analytics. Some kids begin trade school in nursing programs. Some kids join together to start local businesses. Some kids move to San Francisco and join start-ups. Some join writing camps where they write their first novels. Most kids do a few of these things. It’s a time of exploration.

Once You Turn 18 

Every adult gets access to a low interest loan for up to 6 years of schooling or subsidized employment through their adult life. Very few people do this all at one time.

The subsidized loans can only be used at institutions that agree to repay the government for 50% of unpaid loans. If you educate a student who can’t afford to pay back the government, you share the losses. This reduces the number of students who go to four year colleges (as many of these students are too risky to take on) and increases the number of programs that provide sound job training to students who would have likely attended but dropped out of four year universities. Many of these programs are income contingent pay-back models where a student only has to pay back their loans if they earn a certain salary.

More students than ever make the jump to a meaningful career. Higher education expenditures fall as fewer dollars are wasted on programs that provide little value to many of their students.

In Sum

Early childhood is vastly expanded. All kids get access to a nurturing early childhood environment.

Empowered educators run schools serving grades K-10. A public system of schools is operationally decentralized, more programmatically centralized through great third party content providers, and greatly expanded in scope of services provided to at-risk kids. Families have much more information about how schools, and their own children, are doing.

Grades 11 and 12 allow for young adults to experiment across a variety of learning experiences.

Post high-school education is more accountable, specialized, and on-going. Kids are not left with loans that they can’t pay back. Institutions survive by adapting their offerings to what different kids need to cross the bridge into secure, meaningful adulthood.

 

I Think High Schools Should Teach More of These Two Things

Trying to answer of what, on the margin, high schools should teach more of gets at the heart of numerous subquestions, including:

  • What is the role of schooling?
  • Where is the economy heading?
  • What level of content can high schoolers handle?
  • What is already being covered well?

I will steal from a bunch of bloggers, academics, and practitioners in a way that will be a little hard to cite, but it’s fair to say that little that follows below is that original.

A Primary Goal of Schooling is to Normalize that which is Not Normal

In hunter and gather societies, Algebra is not normal. Nor is conscientiousness. Nor is abstract logic.

You get the idea. As societies advance, there’s a bunch of things that may need to be taught because physical and cultural evolution do not provide enough guiding instruction.

Of course, school is isn’t the only way to learn things that aren’t normal, but we’ve chose to make it a major source of normalization.

So one way to answer the question – what should high schools teach more of – is to consider what is not normal now but that we would wish to be normal in the future.

Closely related: what is close enough to normal now that schooling could provide a meaningful nudge to normalization?

What Would Make the World Better if It Were Normal? 

A lot of recent books and blog posts have influenced me on this, perhaps most notably Superforecasters,  Scott Alexander’s post on how hard things are for a lot of people, and Triggers.

The thesis of each of these sources are as follows:

  1. Superforecasters = always start with baseline research and data before making any decision.
  2. Scott Alexander = even in America, a lot of people are suffering with major issues such as chronic pain, drug abuse, and unemployment.
  3. Triggers = adult behavior change is very hard but possible.

Over the past few years, recent events in my own life have driven home the importance and relevance of these theses.

What would make the world better if it were more normal?

I think these two things:

  1. An increased internalization that opinions should be formed based on baseline data and research. I mean this both in the policy sense (should we raise taxes?), the business sense (which website design should we use?), and personal life (which nursing home should I use?).
  2. Adult behavior change is possible and specific techniques can increase the chance of success. I mean this in the professional sense (I need to ask more questions in meetings), the interpersonal sense (I need to talk less about myself in groups), and the spiritual sense (I need to meditate more frequently).

Can High Schoolers Handle This?

I don’t know, but my guess is yes. Research trials could tell us. But none of the above are intellectually taxing in terms of complexity.

Rather, these two learnings are more just specific applications of conscientiousness, humility, and growth mindset.

It’s my strong guess that strong marginal improvement could be made in these areas without students ever entering a college campus. It feels like high school material, but I might be wrong.

Providing the Cultural Pressure and Intellectual Tools to Achieve Normalization 

With a few exceptions, high school curriculum covers a lot of important material. My guess is that, on the margin, more traditional content is not what is needed (i.e., more advanced math).

Rather, at the margin, I think there may be a lot of gains to be made in providing cultural pressure – and giving student the intellectual tools – to normalize the tools of data usage and adult behavior change.

But all this is surely speculative, and I don’t have strong confidence that I’m right.

Perhaps some high schools might push in this direction and see if it makes a difference in students’ lives.

Managing Humans is a Form of Cultural Evolution

51sdhzvyftl-_sx334_bo1204203200_

I’m reading: The Secret of Our Success: How Culture is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making us Smarter.

The book is good, but it feels overly long, and I don’t know if I will finish it.

The main premise of the book is that accumulated cultural wisdom drives much of human progress.

For example, if you were dropped off in the middle of the Amazon, you would probably die because you are not a part of a culture that has developed the knowledge necessary to survive in this environment.

This may seem obvious, but it is still profound.

We survive not only because of our individual intelligence but also because of our collective intelligence, and our collective intelligence is often narrowly tailored to the environment of our birth.

___

Here is how Patrick Collison, the founder of Stripe, describes their organization:

We’re relatively conventionally organized. There’s always a temptation to reconceive the nature of humanity and social structure; you should really try to discourage that inner voice. First, think about all the risks you’re taking in your business. The standard ways of organizing a businesses are empirically sufficient for creating Google, Facebook, etc. Do you really want to add your novel organizational ontology as an additional business risk factor? Second, you’re not going to be very good at anticipating the problems with any alternative that you might conceive, since — chances are — many of the future problems are ones you won’t have encountered before.

Here is Sam Altman in the Startup Playbook:

One mistake that CEOs often make is to innovate in well-trodden areas of business instead of innovating in new products and solutions. For example, many founders think that they should spend their time discovering new ways to do HR, marketing, sales, financing, PR, etc. This is nearly always bad. Do what works in the well-established areas, and focus your creative energies on the product or service you’re building.

___

Managing humans is a form of cultural evolution.

Over time, we have figured out ways to organize humans to accomplish great things.

When I helped start NSNO, I had no idea how to manage humans. Luckily, great people on our team taught me how to do this.

I also read a lot of books.

Now, whatever the endeavor, I take the time to create: goals, a strategy, core values, vehicles for individual feedback, and systems to monitor overall progress.

Of course, I don’t do this perfectly, but I always do it.

Humans have evolved to manage other humans in a manner that, when done well, can be inspiring, meaningful, and lead to great things being accomplished.

As such, I don’t try to reinvent the human management wheel that has been created by our human ancestors.

My marginal units of energy are most often spent on (1) human management execution; and  (2) product innovation.

I try not to bother with human management innovation. You probably shouldn’t either.

Rather, you should focus on product innovation.

In our team’s case, that means spending energy on trying to figure out how society can best deliver an excellent education to all children.

We have a long way to go, but early results are promising:

Screen Shot 2015-08-04 at 7.03.28 AM

Advice for Ambitious 19 Year Olds Who Want to Work in Education

I just read Sam Altman’s blog post on career advice for the start-up industry. I enjoyed his post.

Here’s my version for the education sector. Of course, the world (thankfully) is not so ordered that you can plot your way to changing the world. But you can (and should) put yourself in situations that increase the probability that you can change the world (if that is your ambition, which it need not be).

Lastly, I know some folks think posts like this are obnoxious. But I wish adults had been honest and open with me about this stuff when I was nineteen. No one was. This caused me to make some early mistakes that I regret in that they decreased meaning, happiness, and purpose.

___

1. Go to a College that Offers Rigorous Coursework and Great Classmates – and Don’t Solely Major in Education 

If you want to impact education, it’s best that you go to college, as education is a fairly regulated industry that often requires a degree of some sort, especially to teach. Unfortunately, in too many schools education coursework is not rigorous. So you should major in something rigorous that ideally aligns to your emerging strengths and includes some quantitative coursework; good matchings include: policy and systems strength (economics); quantitative and logic strengths (engineering, computer science); writing strength (philosophy, history). While in college, you should find ways to get real world experience in leadership and working in teams. You should get to know a lot of awesome people; maybe even do some drugs. For all of these reasons, you should go to a college where you are confident you can get rigorous coursework and meet great people. Such schools come in all shapes, sizes, and prices.

2. Teach or Become a High Dosage Tutor at a High-Performing School 

You don’t have to have worked in a classroom to affect education; however, not teaching will limit your opportunities down the road and will risk creating instructional blindspots that can be difficult to overcome. If you simply aren’t built for teaching a full classroom of students, do full-time high dosage tutoring. Either way, join up with a high-performing school. It might feel good to be a martyr at a terrible school, but you will not change much and you will have lost two years where you could have been building the skills that would allow you to really help children over the long-haul. At minimum, teach for as long as it takes you to become pretty good (most likely at least three years) or as long as it takes to realize you will never be good at it (most likely at least two years).

3. Start Taking Small Bets and Learn From Them 

On your way to becoming a good teacher (probably in year two or three) start taking small bets that align with your passions and emerging strengths. Grab some coworkers and create an education app. Volunteer at a think tank. Create a new class at your school. Spend the summer working in a developing nation. Start a blog. Work on a political campaign. While you are making these small bets, make sure you’re listening to the feedback. What do you enjoy? What are you better at than other people? In the future, what might you be better at than most people? In the future, what might you be better at than 99% of people? What might actually help kids? What might not?

4. Then Take a Big Bet with a Great Team Where You Will Grow 100x

At some point, take a big bet. This could be in teaching: you could attempt to team up with some great math educators create the world’s best high school Geometry curriculum. It could be in entrepreneurship and leadership: you could join the founding team of a very innovative or high-growth charter school. It could be in ed tech: you could join a start-up or early stage company. It could be in a union: you could partner with likeminded educators and launch a new union. Ideally, you’ll want to join a smallish team that is led by a few amazing people who can challenge you immensely and from whom you can learn a ton. If you launch something yourself, you’ll likely be trading deep mentorship for ownership, so make sure you get some great informal or formal advisors. Also, whatever you choose to do should have an incredibly high upside – if it works, does it have a chance to change the game for kids?

In most cases, don’t set your eyes on trying to move up in a larger organization. While you can do a lot of good by contributing to a large organization, in most cases you won’t get the experiences you need to grow 100x. Starting new entrepreneurial ventures within a large organization (if they let you) might be an exception (but probably not).

5. Continue Doubling Down on High Upside Opportunities that Align with Your Strengths

At some point you should figure out what you’re really good at it (you generally have to be really good at something if you want to change the game for kids). Then keep taking opportunities that utilize these strengths and have high upsides for kids. If you get in a rut, go to grad school. If you’re not in a rut, don’t go to grad school.

____

Just some thoughts. Again, life is not so easily planned, but the above are things to consider.

As for me:

I did (1) poorly: I majored in English at Tulane which turned out not be rigorous. It wasn’t until law school that I was pushed to be a more rigorous thinker.

I did (2) poorly: I did not teach, which I regret.

I did (3) well: While in law school I worked and lived in Sierra Leone; worked in India; wrote a novel; led a legal team on an education lawsuit; volunteered in New Orleans after Katrina. I made a lot of small bets.

I did (4) well: I teamed up with Sarah Usdin and Matt Candler to launch New Schools for New Orleans. I grew 100x and eventually became CEO. I think we did a lot of good for kids.

Time will tell if I get (5) right.

___

Good luck. Kids are waiting for you.