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Personalized learning is a transformative idea without a transformative technology

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I just got back from vacation, which was a great time to read the The Three Body Problem science fiction trilogy, a wonderful series that revolves around the protoganist using first principles thinking to negotiate with an alien species.

Upon return, I read this Rand report on personalized learning, which was funded by the Gates foundation. The report covers a small set of schools in the early years of implementation, so best not to draw too firm of conclusions.

The report found:

  • Charters that adopted personalized learning strategies saw a +.1 effect in math and no statistically significant in reading.
  • District schools (very small N) saw no achievement gains.
  • Charter schools implemented personalized learning strategies with more operational fidelity.

Perhaps most interestingly, the authors noted:

In this theoretical conception, schools that are high implementers of PL [personalized learning]  approaches would look very different from more traditional schools. In practice, although there were some differences between the NGLC schools and the national sample, we found that schools in our study were implementing PL approaches to a varying degree, with none of the schools looking as radically different from traditional schools as theory might predict.

So in this sample, charters outperform traditional schools (thought by a lesser margin than urban charters as a whole outperform traditional schools); charters execute better; and the schools themselves don’t look radically different than traditional schools.

Hence the title of this post: personalized learning is a transformative idea without a transformative technology.

Without a technological breakthrough, the current personalized learning efforts will, at best, lead to modest improvements on the execution of common place ideas (using data to drive instruction, executing leveled small group instruction, investing children in goals, etc.). School will look the same and be a little more effective and pleasant for all involved.

This is fine and the world is in many ways built on modest improvements.

But for personalized learning to live up to its hype (as well as to its philanthropic investment), it will need a technological breakthrough.

Instructional platforms might be the first breakthrough, but even here I think the primary effects will be more around scaling great school models and content rather than deep personalization.

The crux of the issue is this: computers are simply not as good as humans in coaching students through instructional problems.

Your average person off the street remains a more effective grade school tutor than the most powerful computer in the world.

Until this changes, personalized learning will never realize its promise. The problem is one of technology, not practice.

How to work less hours and outperform your IQ

I. If you’re going to praise something, praise people who outperform their IQs

Everyone has an IQ. Just like everyone has a personality, a height, and an eye color.

IQ has definitional and measurement problems that make it more like personality than height, but, as with personality, research indicates that IQ is a predictive trait. People with higher IQs tent to have better life outcomes.

In our culture, we both fetishize high IQs and stigmatize low IQs. I wish this were not the case. Nobody selects their IQ from the IQ tree. It’s handed to them and then shaped by their environment (and nobody selects their environment from the environment tree).

To the extent you believe in free will, however, it is possible to proactively make decisions that can help you outperform your IQ.

If we are going to obsess over anything about IQs, we should obsess about people who outperform their IQs.

II. There are people out there with higher IQs than you 

Unless your IQ is extremely, extremely high, you will at some point be competing against, or working for, people who have higher IQs than you do.

This happens to me all the time. My guess is that both my current employers, as well as my last employer, have higher IQs than I do.

And yet I think I can perform my job better than they could.

Why?

Specialization.

III. Specialization 

I have a pretty specialized skill set. I know how to help cities transition from traditional public school systems to systems that rely more heavily on the non-profit operation of schools.

While the high level strategy of these types of transitions is not rocket science, the details are (at least it feels like it to me!).

It’s very difficult to build plans, marshal a coalition, and execute programmatic shifts in school development, talent, government, and advocacy – as well as develop a policy regime that fits within a state’s constitutional parameters.

I spent eight years doing this in New Orleans; one year doing this a consultant; and about two years doing this in philanthropy.

Now, when I come across a problem in a city, I’m bringing a decade of specialized knowledge and pattern recognition to the issue.

Even if you have a higher IQ than me, I’ll probably get the answer right more often (and quicker) than you will.

IV. You can work less too 

The more specialized your knowledge is, the less likely other people are to also possess this knowledge. This means you have less competitors. If you so desire, this should allow you to work less and still be valuable to your employer.

If you can get the right answer in less time than most other people, you’ll have some spare hours to play with. You could fill these hours with more work (and accomplish more great outcomes), or you could spend more time on other things, such as family and friends.

The key is that the choice is yours, not theirs.

Specialization is a marvelous thing!

Is Tyler Cowen right to be stubbornly attached to economic growth?

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Tyler Cowen just published Stubborn Attachments in e-book form.

With the book, you get deep exposure to Tyler’s mental model of the world.

As someone who attempts to collect mental models for subsequent application, I came away smarter for having read it.

Below I’ll try and restate Tyler’s main practical arguments (skipping over some of the philosophy) and then end with some questions and concerns.

Tyler’s Primary Thesis: Sustainable Economic Growth Should Guide Our Policy Making

Tyler argues that sustainable economic growth should guide much of our policy making because, over centuries, the gains from economic growth dwarf the gains of just about all other considerations.

He defines sustainable economic growth as gains in “wealth plus,” which “includes traditional measures of economic value, as would be found in gdp statistics, but also measures of leisure time, household production, and environmental amenities, as summed up in a relevant measure of wealth.”

Over let’s say a 5,000 years, consider two possibilities:

No economic growth: We stay the same. Poverty is all around us. People are starving. Billions of people barely get by. Life is hard for so many people.

Modest economic growth: We grow at 2% a year. In 5,000 years, future humans (assuming no population explosion) are crazy wealthy, have access to amazing technology, and even the poorest humans view the richest people of today as paupers. No one is losing sleep trying to make ends meet. Every person has every material need taken care of, plus the wealth to pursue their passions and interests.

In other words, the difference between poverty as we know it and each of us feeling like Bill Gates was materially poor is determined by one thing: sustainable economic growth.

So when we’re making policy decisions we should keep our eye on the prize: sustainable economic growth is what will allow us to flourish.

Of course, in order for you to accept this argument you have to be ok with two assumptions: future lives matter a lot (so we should focus on pro-growth policies that benefit future people), and, increased wealth leads to increased well-being (Tyler runs through the research).

While both of these assumptions are contentious, I believe both to be correct.

Other Considerations: Individual Rights, the Environment, and Social Stability 

Tyler’s provides guardrails and depth to the concept of sustainable economic growth.

First, Tyler argues that we shouldn’t harm individuals to achieve economic growth; i.e., no mass murder even if it helps us squeak out an additional point of growth.

Second, he argues that we shouldn’t destroy the planet in order to achieve economic growth; i.e., what’s the point of focusing on the future benefits of economic growth if there’s no place to live.

Third, he argues that societal stability is an important part of sustainable growth. So policies that might not seem purely connected to growth (such as welfare state) should be considered as part of an effort to maintain the continuity of our civilization.

All of these seem correct to me, though as I’ll argue at the end, I wonder if this last point (societal continuity) is actually what we should be most focused on.

Major Shifts in How We Think and Feel: Redistribute for Growth Only 

Perhaps the biggest practical implication of Tyler’s thesis is that, according to him, “we should redistribute only up to the point which maximizes the rate of sustainable economic growth.”

In other words, we should only give a starving person food if this can be tied to maximizing the rate of sustainable economic growth, not because we feel that the starving person deserves something to eat.

While this rationale logically follows from his assumptions, this line of thinking departs greatly from current values. Most of us justify the welfare state in terms of our care for living and breathing humans, not for future humans.

Tyler’s argument for redistribution is a monumental shift from our current moral calculus.

That being said, it’s possible the our current lack of opportunity is reducing sustainable economic growth, so for now Tyler’s thesis may actually call for an increase in certain types of charity and transfers.

But I predict that most people will find his logic emotionally unappealing.

Anti-Fragility > Sustainable Economic Growth 

As much as I appreciated Tyler’s argument, I think I disagree, though I’m not sure both because I’m still grappling with the text.

Ultimately I believe that “anti-fragility,” rather than “sustainable economic growth” should be the language we use to guide our policy decisions, and I think, though I’m not sure, that this puts me at odds with Tyler.

Consider this hypothetical: would you rather have rather have a million years of infinitesimal  economic decline (.0000000000000000000000000000000000000000000001% a year) and then human extinction or a thousand years of 5% economic growth and then human extinction.

I think almost everyone (including Tyler?) would choose the former.

While economic growth will likely make our society less fragile, this is not inevitable, and we need to incorporate this understanding in choosing guiding principles.

This thought experiment points to the idea that it’s actually the sustainability of a healthy society, and not the sustainability of economic growth, that we desire.

Most of us would accept small amounts of negative economic growth for hundreds of thousands of years of additional existence.

Similarly, I don’t think most of us would take high economic growth and a population explosion that had most people living at substance levels, even if this led to a sustainable society with high amounts of leisure.

So I would argue:

  • Sustainable economic growth is a sub-goal of anti-fragility; it should not be the primary goal in and of itself.
  • Economic growth should be considered in both societal and per-capita terms.
  • I would maintain Tyler’s support for individual rights.
  • I would make environmental sustainability, like economic growth, a sub-goal of anti-fragility.

In sum: anti-fragility and individual rights do all the work. Everything else follows from these two principles.

Thanks + Do the Work Yourself

All that being said, economic growth is clearly one of the primary ways to make our civilization less fragile, so in this sense I agree with many of the practical implications of Tyler’s worldview.

And Tyler’s mental model will be present in my head next time I’m trying to unpack an efficiency vs. equity argument on a specific policy.

Lastly, I do think that everyone should go through the process Tyler went through; ultimately, each of us should understand the philosophical underpinnings of our policy preferences.

I thank Tyler for his contribution.

What will be the stable charter school and teacher union equilibrium?

It appears Kentucky may pass a charter school law.

News recently broke that Noble charter schools may become unionized.

Where is this all heading?

The Forces at Work: Charter Market Share will Continue to Rise 

Charter market share will continue to rise because (a) 40+ states allow charters and this number is increasing and (b) once a charter school is open it is difficult to close.

Yes, policies like charter school caps and moratoriums may slow charter growth down, but it will be incredibly difficult for union leaders to fully stop charters from growing in a world where charters are legal in 90% of states. Rolling back laws in this many states is unlikely.

Charter market share will continue to grow.

The Forces at Work: Unions Organize Where the Teachers Are 

A simple consequence of rising charter market share is a rise in the number of teachers who work at charter schools.

Unions received dues (and power) from having as many teachers as possible enrolled as members.

The more charter schools there are, the more it will be be worthwhile for unions to attempt to organize these teachers, for both financial and political purposes.

The Future of Union Incentives 

So we’re basically going to be in multi-round unionization game between unions and charter schools.

Most importantly, this new game (unionizing a lot of charters) will have very different incentives than the old game (unionizing a local monopoly).

Under the old game, the unions paid a relatively small price for being obstructionist: with only one school operator in town (the district), they didn’t have to worry too much about how their actions affected the performance or reputation of that school operator.

In the new game, the union has a new incentive structure: if they are overly obstructionist, they will reduce their ability  to unionize more charters in the future; however, if they are not obstructionist enough, unionizing a charter won’t slow down the growth of that operator (which is in the unions interest, as they want the district to last as long as possible, as it’s the easiest entity to unionize).

The unions thus want to add value to unionized teachers and at the same time hobble charter school growth.

The ideal play for unions is to: (a) unionize charter schools  (b) demonstrate value to their unionized charter teachers so they can unionize future schools (c) slow down the enrollment growth of unionized charter schools  (d) avoid having unionized charter schools go down in flames so they can unionize future schools.

My Guess

The conditions for charter school unionization are favorable compared to other sectors of the economy: you have a long history of unionization, strong and well-financed existing unions, an inability to outsource to other states or countries, and weak accountability for performance (compared to the financial market).

All of this bodes well for unionization.

But unionizing charters will require unions to moderate their behavior and become less antagonist with management, as they will be working in a market of providers rather than a district monopoly. This will require significant change in their leadership and culture. This is hard to do.

So where are we heading?

One interesting comparison group is nurses, which generally operate in a non-profit, physically anchored, and heavily regulated environment.

Overall, about 20% of nurses belong to a union.

And while most industries have seen declining union membership, nursing union membership has risen over the past 15 years.

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I think we will see the same thing happen in the charter sector.

That being said, given that unions have to independently organize each charter organization (which is very expensive), and that their success will be predicated on cultural change, I don’t think we’ll quickly move into a world of 100% charter unionization.

But will we see 20% of charter school teachers (compared to ~7% right now) organized in unions over the next decade or so?

I think so.

Book Review: Homo Deus

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Homo Deus is Yuval Harari’s follow-up to Sapiens, which was excellent.

I. Book Summary 

The Past 

For most of time, humans struggled to overcome three evils: famines, plagues, and wars.

In part because humans really had no good answers to these problems, God became the center piece of coping with this evils. It was God’s will, rather than human agency, that was the causal foundation for what happened on Earth.

The Turning Point 

The Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution changed all this – rationality and science allowed humans to begin taming famines, plagues, and war – which also eroded God’s standing.

The Present 

Together, the emergence of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution – as well as the decline of religion – led to a very turbulent 20th century, where numerous countries and societies experimented with new social structures.

Ultimately, capitalistic welfare states won out on the economic front, and Humanism (seeking meaning by looking inward rather than by following God’s will) is winning out on the social / spiritual front.

Because we’ve made so much progress defeating famine, plagues, and war – we’re now turning our attention to achieve immortality, happiness, and, ultimately, god like abilities.

The Future

Humanistic capitalism will be threatened by the rise of robots / computers that will undermine the foundations of both humanism and capitalism.

Because machines will be become more advanced than us, it won’t make sense for human intuition and reasoning to be the foundation for morality; and because machines will takeover the human economy, human centered capitalism / welfare states will no longer be the optimal way to structure an economy.

The two most likely futures are: techno-humanism (humans become part machine) or data-ism (humans become functionally obsolete and are replaced by intelligent machines that will likely not be conscious).

Harari indicates that techno-humanism would likely collapse on itself pretty quickly and that data-ism is our more likely future.

II. Harari is a Great Writer and Historian

It’s hard not to envy Harari as a writer: he’s logical, funny, insightful, and has an uncanny ability to elucidate complex subjects through pithy one-liners, stories, and thought experiments.

We’d all be a lot smarter if more non-fiction writers wrote with his intelligence.

Harari also does an incredible job of identifying and explaining the drivers of human material and cultural development.

III. Harari Adds Little to Futurism

Most of the main ideas in Harari’s analysis of the future can be found in deeper and more expansive works (writers along the lines of Ray Kurzwel, Robin Hanson, etc.)

While Harari’s writing and analytical abilities make him a first class historian, these skills do less work in enabling him to make insightful predictions about the future.

What I would have thought would be obvious topics of deep exploration – such as technical analysis of the computing power needed for a singularity type event, as well as the underpinnings of consciousness – receive very little treatment.

Harari just argues that data-ism will likely occur and that we can’t really predict what that will be like.

I would have loved to read a much deeper analysis of on how and when data-ism might occur, as well as some hard thinking about what economics and values might govern this new world.

Sapiens is required reading.

Homo Deus is worth reading, but, unfortunately, it’s not groundbreaking.

Wisdom of others: best books I read in 2016

Note that these are books I read in 2016, not necessarily those that were published in 2016.

Wealth of Humans – Ryan Avent

A great overview of the major trends that will affect employment, wages, and politics over the coming decades. This book significantly increased my belief that wage subsidies may be a key policy for increasing individual meaning and societal stability as we transition to the digital age. I reviewed the book here.

The Sovereign Individual: Mastering the Transition to the Information Age – James Dale Davidson and Lord William Rees-Mogg

This books wins the award for “highest authorial confidence in opinions I disagree with” – yet it made me think a lot, and I value books for the thoughts they generate just as much as the claims that are made.

The Age of Em: Work, Love and Life when Robots Rule the Earth – Robin Hanson

A fascinating book of predictions based on the idea of (1) applying social science literature to (2) hard science trends to (3) try to predict the future. I reviewed the book here.

Blood Oil: Tyrants, Violence, and the Rules that Run the World -Leif Wenar

Wenar’s argument – that we should not buy oil and minerals from states where the people have not given their assent for the sale – seems morally correct and politically impossible, for now. But the seeds of change often begin with clear arguments. Hopefully Wenar will have influence over the coming decades.

The Scapegoat – Rene Girard

Girard, a Christian, makes the argument that profoundness of Jesus’ death stems from the fact that it marks a historical shift in empathy: instead of siding with the mob that kills the outsider, with Jesus we side with the outsider.

I found this to be a compelling and beautiful argument. It also supports my belief that the origins of Christianity and Buddhism are intertwined with the transition from hunter and gather to agricultural societies. In a hunter and gather society, the group is everything. In agricultural societies, high degrees of inequality create more within group class based conflict, which opens up space for spiritual traditions based on poverty / outsiders / individual suffering / etc.

A People’s History of the United States – Howard Zinn

I’d never read it before. I’m only 25% finished as it’s so brutal to read. But it adds important context to the tales we’ve been told.

The Spoils of War: Greed, Power, and the Conflicts That Made Our Greatest PresidentsBruce Bueno de Mesquita, Alastair Smith

A good company on to Zinn. I didn’t agree with everything in this book but I like the framework: analyzing presidential war time decisions based on personal desires and psychology rather than simply national interest. I found the arguments about the Revolutionary War to be most compelling (war fueled in part by desire for territorial expansion and land owner wealth accumulation). Also right notes that we give too much status to war time presidents and not enough status to economic growth / peace presidents.

The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads – Tim Wu

Wu makes a strong argument that “fake news” is a structural problem with deep historical roots: so long as advertisements drive revenues for media, we’ll always have problems with the consequences of fighting for eyeballs.

The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics – Judis

Most interesting takeaway: leftist populist movements tend to involve two groups (the people vs. the elite) while right wing populist movements tend to involve three groups (the people vs. the elite + an out group).

The Last Days of Night: A Novel – Graham Moore

A great historical fiction novel about the corporate wars to win the race of making money off the electrification of America.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis – J.D. Vance

Made me think deeper about the historical perseverance of culture.

The Rise and Fall of Nations: Forces of Change in the Post-Crisis World – Ruchir Sharma

Re-enforced the power of creating frameworks that combine the right metrics with psycho / social / cultural analysis. You need both to do diligence on countries or companies or people.

Younger Next Year: A Guide to Living Like 50 Until You’re 80 and Beyond – Chris Cowley and Henry Lodge

Ignore the occasional off-putting sexism and you’ll get great advice (I think). I have 100% adopted the physical routine but am still struggling with the dietary routine.

Good Profit: How Creating Value for Others Built One of the World’s Most Successful Companies – Charles Koch

Whatever you think of Koch politics, this is an insightful read on how a founder’s philosophy, psychology, and personal values infuse a company, for better or for worse.

Miracle Man – William Leibowitz

A fun read!

 

Here’s a better framework for thinking about Trump

As I’m reading anti-Trump and pro-Trump commentary, I’m finding very few pieces that fully explore the different possibilities of a Trump presidency.

So I tried to create a graph to chart what I think are three dominant considerations we should be using to understand the president elect.

A Framework for Understanding the President Elect 

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This framework captures 3 primary spectra:

Social Liberalism: Does a leader have respect for people of all races, gender, sexuality, religion, and places of birth?

Economics: Does a leader lean more toward populist economics (which often involves trade protectionism and anti-immigration stances) or globalist economics (which generally leans towards free trade and more immigration)?

Rule of Law: Does a leader behave within the established norms of domestic democracy and international rule of law, or does she lead by greatly damaging democratic institutions and grossly violating international law?

To chart some historical examples, I spent a few minutes trying to plot the last few American presidents and Hitler. I was just aiming to be directionally correct but am in no way trying to argue that I plotted these perfectly.

Each Variable is Very Important, But I Think Rule of Law is Probably Most Important

You could make reasonable arguments for each variable being the most important consideration.

If I had to argue for social liberalism, I’d say that even someone who works within the rule of law can do terrible harm to minority populations.

If I had to argue for economics, I’d say that someone who wrecks the international economic system could unleash untold suffering on the poor of the world.

In arguing for rule of law, I’m mostly arguing from this recent historical fact that so many of the world’s major mass deaths have been caused by dictators, such as Hitler, Mao and Stalin.

This graph is illustrative:

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I’d need to think harder before having stronger opinions on the relative importance of each variable.

The only thing I am confident in is that they’re all important.

When to Build Bridges, When to Join the Resistance 

I think both Trump and Clinton supporters have reasonable grievances about the world.

I don’t think that it’s in our country’s best long-term interest for each side to: (1) argue loudly about their legitimate grievances (2) not listen to the other side’s legitimate grievances and (3) not differentiate between policy differences and threats to the survival of the nation.

I think economics and immigration are policy differences.

I think respect for rule of law is an issue that gets at the survival of our nation.

And I think social liberalism sits between the two, in that it determines who receives the full benefit of the rule of law within our country, which in its most severe form can threaten the survival of our nation (slavery) but in other cases can be solved through the political process (gay marriage).

I think it’s worth trying to build bridges around policy and less severe forms of social illiberalism.

I think it’s worth considering more radical forms of resistance in cases of major threats to the rule of law and severe cases of social illiberalism.

In Sum

Our country is deeply divided about many issues.

It’s important to tease out the differences between these issues, both to understand ourselves and to understand the president elect.

I know that this is a rather unemotional way of trying to understand issues riven with deep emotions.

I’ve felt a lot over the past week – it’s been especially hard to hear stories of children in our schools who don’t feel safe – and I’ll continue to listen to these emotions.

But I also want to try and understand the way forward, and, for me, frameworks help.