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The Rigidity of Public Education and its Unintended Societal Effects

What is happening to our society?   It is clear we have become hypersensitive and have lost our light-hearted nature.    While the proliferation of social media has made the world feel "smaller," it has also had some unintended consequences, such as impulsive responses without the full context, only 140 characters of context.    But it all starts in public schools, where our zero tolerance policies run completely counter to the elements needed to foster creativity, entrepreneurship and innovation - elements which our nation was founded upon.

What triggered this reaction today?   Yesterday, three radio disc jockeys were terminated after a stunt mocking ALS patient (and former New Orleans Saints player) Steve Gleason went awry.   After first making a public statement that the three radio hosts would be "suspended indefinitely," they were summarily fired less than a few hours later.   Now don't get me wrong.   I do not condone what they did - it was an ill advised stunt that was meant as a parody, and no one should degrade anyone who suffers from such a terrible, debilitating disease such as ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease).   Listeners took to the blogosphere and immediately went looking for blood, including some of his former teammates.   I'm sure some sponsors also threatened to pull their advertising if something wasn't done to reprimand these radio hosts.  Gleason said nothing until AFTER they were terminated (we'll get to what he said later).    Why the rapid-fire trigger finger on the part of the radio station's parent company, Lincoln Financial Media?   Social media allows anyone to have an opinion and make it known, but it astounds me how quickly people react without knowing the facts.  Let me provide some background, since I have met two of these radio hosts and have some interesting background information to share:

  • One of them, Steak Shapiro, was one of the founders of the radio station and has been on the air in Atlanta for nearly two decades.   His performance has been impeccable and I know him to be of impeccable character.
  • The men immediately issued heartfelt apologies and promised to make it up to the Gleason family.  One of them actually spoke to Steve's wife and apologized.  Shapiro is a graduate of Tulane University and while the Saints are clear arch rivals of the Falcons, he has always held the city of New Orleans in high regard.  No doubt it will take him a long time to mend fences there.
  • A former colleague of mine, Rodney Ho, a journalist with an Atlanta newspaper, wrote a very interesting background story.  Shapiro sold the station to Lincoln Financial Media a few years ago, and there is evidence suggesting that the station was looking to let their contracts expire in a few months, with no intention to renew.  With additional competition for sports talk in the Atlanta marketplace, it has adversely impacted the station's finances and market position and they were clearly looking to reduce their cost base.   This incident, while ill-advised and inappropriate, was a convenient way for the station to get out what would have been an already complex negotiation.

My feeling is this.   Why the rush for blood?  Why not look to use this as a "teachable moment" and positively reinforce a behavior change?   Gleason didn't comment until AFTER the decision to terminate was made.  While not reacting to the station's decision, he posted on his Facebook page that "he accepted their apologies."  Some options the station could have considered include:

  • Have the hosts go on the air the following day and use a segment to make an on-air apology and put some focus on awareness of ALS
  • Consider having the hosts contribute meaningfully to ALS or Gleason's charity, as well as participate in some fundraising or other events related to ALS
  • Consider a suspension as a reprimand for their actions but recognizing they are ALL first offenders who have a long track record of professionalism in the radio industry.

But that didn't happen here.   Just like our public education system, we are quick to punish those who break the rules and refuse to identify ways to turn an unfortunate incident into a positive, teachable moment.  All we did in this case was throw these gentleman under the bus and likely prevent them from continuing to work in the radio business, at least for the foreseeable future.  As Shapiro said in two tweets:

17 Jun

What is so ironic is that I went to Tulane, love New Orleans and love the story, what a moronic 2 mins, I am truly sorry....

17 Jun

ALS not a joke, bit or game. 20 yrs on the air, 2 bad mins on a show, look at the whole picture I hope. Zone was a great ride!!

i expressed my views in an even-toned letter to the GM of the station, and surprisingly, received the following response:

Thank you for your e-mail. I appreciate the time you took to write it and I respect your point of view. I thought it was important, however, to share some additional perspective. Deciding to terminate Nick, Chris and Steak as a result of what transpired on Monday morning was neither an impulsive decision nor an easy one. As you outlined in your e-mail, they each have long careers in radio and are fixtures in our community. Notwithstanding this fact, I have a responsibility to our listeners, to our advertisers and to our overall community to protect the standards and core values of our organization. The content of Monday mornings programming cannot be reconciled with those standards and core values. While this was a difficult decision, I am confident that it was the right one.

No one is defending their actions, but this blogger feels that the station found a convenient way to get out of a difficult business decision, and these guys deserve a second chance.    There were other options "to protect the standards and core values of the organization."   Just like in public education, we need to learn from failures and allow people a chance to redeem themselves.  If we punish those who break the rules, then you can throw America's innovative spirit out the window.


Disruptive Innovation is NOT a Myth - Understand How and When to Apply it

I have studied, leveraged and lectured about disruptive innovation theory for more than a decade.   When we launched GameTap at Turner Broadcasting, our internal strategic pitches illustrated how the invention was potentially a disruptive technology in the video games industry.   It was disruptive because it possessed the following characteristics which are common characteristics of a disruptive innovation:

  • The product was serving an area of nonconsumption in the marketplace - game publishers and console manufacturers were not focused on backward compatibility of video games and were focused on first-run, retail sales of new titles due to lack of viable distribution channels for back catalog content.    As such, the market was perceived to be smaller and more niche than the hardcore game market.   Further, incumbents were concerned of the potential cannibalization of new releases which ironically, was the same undue concern the movie studios had when cable television came to being.
  • The initial product was perceived as cheaper and less attractive than existing products.
  • It was a lower margin opportunity which was largely ignored by established companies.

I remember when Nintendo launched the Wii, I had several spirited debates with industry executives who believed that the Wii was a disruptive innovation.   I firmly believed it was NOT a disruptive innovation.  Conversely, I felt that Nintendo wisely introduced a sustaining innovation to the marketplace.   Instead of competing head to head with Sony and Microsoft, it focused solely on games in its new console.  However, it broadened the market for video games because it made the experience family-friendly.  The introduction of the nunchuk controller was a revolutionary feature in the console gaming experience.   It was a stellar strategic move by Nintendo at the time, but it was NOT disruptive.   It targeted the same market and it was still, first and foremost, a game console.   However, by focusing solely on games and broadening the market, it introduced a less expensive game console that was priced far below its competitors.     It served Nintendo well for a while, but as the market evolved towards online gaming and mobile gaming, Nintendo was ill-prepared for this transition and found itself in a significantly disadvantaged position. In its most recent fiscal year, the company suffered its first annual financial loss and its stock was hammered in the markets.

Disruptive innovation theory must be used properly.    A recent article  wisely alluded to the fact that everyone is trying to apply the theory to their latest technological innovation.    Entrepreneurs have turned the theory into a "fad," which it is not.   Because of the misuse, it has caused some in the blogosphere to call it a "myth" and that the theory is believed to be "unassailably true" and a "sacred text."  This would be a gross misunderstanding of the theory and its principles.  And sadly,  this misapplication could not be more evident than in the area of public education.

When Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn wrote Disrupting Class, they discussed how public education was primed for disruptive innovation:  how a shift to student-centric learning would and could fundamentally transform the manner in which we educate our children.  Yes, they introduced certain projections on the growth of online learning, but the strategic premise was correct.   I have had many conversations with the book's co-author, Michael Horn, over the past five years, and as we've seen digital learning take various forms, the latest being blended learning, we NEVER said it was disruptive.  Even if an invention appears disruptive, the question is whether you are distributing it disruptively.   When I was working on an ed tech startup five years ago, Michael always made me consider that question.  This is one reason why technology has been "crammed" into schools.   Back in 2011, Horn penned an op-ed piece, one of many on the subject, where he talked about how the United States has wasted over $60 billion cramming technology into public schools over the past few decades, with little to no effect on productivity, economic efficiency, or most importantly, academic achievement.

When the Clayton Christensen Institute introduced their latest whitepaper last week:  Is K-12 Blended Learning Disruptive, blogger Audrey Watters took the opportunity to fundamentally challenge the theory and make it look like the institute was "backpedaling" on their original premise by introducing a new term, "hybrid innovation."  Per the whitepaper:  a hybrid is a combination of the new, disruptive technology with the old technology and represents a sustaining innovation relative to the old technology.  While I do not question Ms. Watters' skepticism, I challenge her assertion that the Institute is perpetuating a myth and that there is a political influence to their actions.   Think about what blended learning is and is not:

  • It is NOT typically targeting an "area of nonconsumption."   It is attempting to transform the physical classroom and manner in which knowledge is delivered to a student.
  • As Horn points out, "Disruptive innovations, in contrast, do not try to bring better products to existing customers in established markets. Instead, they offer a new definition of what’s good—typically they are simpler, more convenient, and less expensive products that appeal to new or less demanding customers. Over time, they improve enough to intersect with the needs of more demanding customers, thereby transforming a sector."  Blended learning is targeting an established market, unlike virtual schooling and other forms of online learning outside the classroom.
  • We do not yet know whether it will be less costly than the status quo.  In fact, as long as funding mechanisms continue to be inefficient and improperly aligned with student outcomes, it may require additional investment in its initial phase in order to integrate into the public school infrastructure.  When you target an existing market, it becomes a tradeoff analysis.   To fund this, what must you cut?
  • Hybrids try to do the job of the existing product or service.  Isn't that what blended learning is attempting to do?
  • Blended learning appears to be less “foolproof” than a disruptive innovation. It does not significantly reduce the level of wealth and/or expertise needed to purchase and operate it.  Teachers need to be trained to fundamentally alter the way they teach, particularly in a station-rotation type blended model.

I take the position that the Christensen Institute is NOT backpedaling on their original book.   Rather, they wrote this paper to create a baseline understanding of what blended learning is and is not.   It NEVER was a disruptive innovation, but many educators, policy experts, and writers are questioning the credibility of the Institute because of the people who not only do not fully understand the theory, but also, as a result, misapply it in the marketplace.   When has a projection been correct?  I'm sure that some of the projections in Disrupting Class, even the ones Ms. Watters points out ( 1.  in 15 years, half of our universities may be bankrupt; 2. by the year 2019, 50% of all K-12 classes will be taught online), may be overstated to a certain agree.  However, it is broadly believed that the underlying premise of these estimates is accurate.  The higher ed system has an unsustainable business model which has led to the introduction of MOOCs (e.g., Coursera).  We also know that the use of digital learning in the classroom is growing at a rapid pace - it might be more "blended" than solely online, as we expect it to be.  The physical classroom is not going to be eliminated anytime soon, nor should it. 

Ms. Watters does not have an MBA as she points out.  This does not make her any less informed or less intelligent than those of us who have MBAs.   In fact, she is a very experienced, knowledgeable education technology blogger.   However, time and time again, disruptive innovation has proven to be an accurate framework to illustrate how breakthrough innovations emerge and transform industries.   What the Christensen Institute has done is create a framework to accurately capture the ongoing transformation of public education.   Blended learning is NOT disruptive.   It's a sustaining innovation relative to the status quo, and it's time everyone started applying the nomenclature correctly.

Disruptive innovation is most definitely a sacred text.   But when mis-applied, it can become a catch-all phrase for all inventions, and that would be grossly unfair to Professor Christensen and his valuable contributions to our society.




Concerns About "Tiger Mom" Parenting Approach Supported By Data

Let me start out by saying I am very sensitive to Asian cultures.  I have spent a considerable amount of time in Japan, Korea and China and I speak conversational Japanese.   I know that these cultures put a VERY high price on education and typically take an "ends justifies the means" parenting style.    We all see the academic achievement coming out of these countries' schools and they realize that education can create economic competitiveness. 

With that out of the way, I have not been comfortable with the "tiger mom" philosophy.  I read Amy Chua's book and I must admit, I was mortified by it.   I just couldn't see myself treat my children this way, and I have seen some American-born parents do this with their children in various ways, such as pushing them too early to specialize in a sport, and making them join travel teams at very early ages and have no socialization and risk being burned out before they finish high school.   I have also interviewed high school seniors for my alma mater and seen "tiger mom" parenting philosophies.  However, I would not criticize another country's cultural practices, but rather state that it is not a philosophy I would ever inflict on my own children.   When the book came out, there was highly spirited debate, but now there just might be the first research studies published to support those who vehemently oppose the "tiger mom" practice.

Su Yeong Kim, an Associate Professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Texas, had been following more than 300 Asian-American families for a decade when the book came out.  She recently published her results.  Children of parents whom Kim classified as “tiger” had lower academic achievement and attainment—and greater psychological maladjustment—and family alienation, than the kids of parents characterized as “supportive” or "easygoing."  I encourage you to review the study, its methodology and its findings.

I have no doubt that we have not heard the end of this debate.



How Self Interest Groups, Conflicts of Interest Sabotage the Education Reform Debate

Lesson #1:   don't believe everything you read online as valid research on education policy.

There has been a great deal of heated rhetoric around charter schools and high stakes tests.  I have learned that the media will, on most occasions, get in the way of education reform efforts.  Let me give you a few examples of what I'm talking about.

 The National Education Policy Center says its mission is "to produce and disseminate high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. We are guided by the belief that the democratic governance of public education is strengthened when policies are based on sound evidence."  But looking underneath the surface raises a host of questions:

  1. It gets a large amount of its funding from the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association - the two most influential teachers unions in the United States.
  2. Its blog section is basically a series of reposts from NEA members who are tasked with riling up their member base by writing consistently about opposition to education reform policies.  Folks such as Diane Ravitch are referenced almost daily.
  3. No editorial review is performed on these blog posts.  For example, one of the authors, Paul Thomas, whom I have criticized regularly on Education Week for his attack dog style and personal, slanderous attacks on people without sufficient evidence for such attacks, recently authored a blog post titled "Burning Bridges." In this post, which I will not provide links to but you can easily find it, he explicitly states that he believes that KIPP is a racist organization.  And the NEPC is totally fine with publishing such content, thereby destroying their organization as a credible "research" organization.
  4. One of the influencers that regularly gets reposted from the NEPC, Bruce Baker, is the quintessential "pay-to-play union hack extraordinaire."  This story details how Mr. Baker does "extensive work" for the NEPC, yet has been caught acknowledging that "he is willing to massage data until it serves up the results that his client wants."

I'm not saying that some ed reformers don't have conflicts of interest that they fail to acknowledge, but the folks who repeatedly criticize the ed reformers have their own credibility and integrity issues.

Even the mainstream media is creating paranoia and fear in the minds of the electorate and use misinformation to sway public opinion issues.   The Atlanta Journal Constitution's education blog, Get Schooled, is clearly trying to sway public opinion on high stakes testing.  I have been on record saying that our testing needs to be overhauled and used more appropriately in assessing school effectiveness and teacher effectiveness.  We teach to the test and tests should be used as an indicator only, not 50% or more of a teacher's evaluation plan.   This blog consistently republishes letters it receives from folks it claims to be experienced experts in this space, but yesterday, they published a letter from the Director of  Undergraduate Studies at Georgia State University who is literally telling students to only answer half the questions on standardized tests! When I I read this blog post, I almost hurled an object through a window in my house.   I have consistently stated the need to revamp how we test and how it is used in the evaluation of both teachers and schools, but the answer is NOT to teach kids to not do your best 100% of the time!    This is analogous to an athlete throwing a game or a musician flubbing a recital on purpose.  As an ethicist, I thought you would have a POV and want to know about such drivel, which should never have been published in a credible publication.   Telling kids to tank an exam is NOT the answer.

So at the end of the day, the moral of the story is this:   when reading authoritative stories on education policy, know something about the organization or person who is behind the story.  Knowledge is power, and so is neutrality.   It's getting harder to find the latter in the public discourse.


"A Prayer in the Aftermath of the Boston Marathon Bombing"

Credits given to Rabbi Joe Black for writing such a beautiful prayer.


Our God who dwells in the highest heights and in the souls of our feet:

We find You in the passion of those who delight in testing and celebrating the power of their bodies:

The runners who push themselves to find new challenges in the rhythm of the road and the camaraderie of the race;

The doctors, medics, police, fire fighters and bystanders whose dedication to humanity drives them to run into the fray - towards the bruised and bloodied bodies in the streets.

On this day of destruction, we need to remember that the race is not for the swift; there is no finish line for those who seek a better world.
Neither bombs, nor blood, not death, nor destruction can deter us from running, O God.
We run to You.
We run towards a vision of perfection that is always in our sights.
We run determined to never allow hatred to obscure Your presence.
We run to build a better world.
Be with those who have lost loved ones on this tragic day.
Send comfort and healing to the injured and the maimed.
Heal them - heal us all - body and soul - as we strive to find You.
Give us hope.
Help us to use our arms, our legs, our breath, our determination to unite in a common purpose.
In our grief may we find the strength to keep on running.