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Cross-posted at Education Week.
In my first dispatch from Hong Kong in this series, I described the Diocesan Boys School: low beautiful colonial buildings on a leafy campus scattered across acres of land on a priceless Hong Kong hilltop, the lovely harmonies of English choral music being practiced by the school’s choir, which has sung at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC; the sons of Hong Kong’s elite acquiring the skills they would need as the next generation of the city’s leaders.
Ho Yu College and Primary School is not like that. Located far from the city center on Landau Island, in an area that has long been home to Hong Kong’s poor, Ho Yu is concrete and functional, located on a plot of land that would fit into a tiny corner of the DBS campus. The principal, Ms. Lee Suet Ying, came here about 15 years ago to find a school controlled by street gangs, the faculty cowed, their morale broken, and the students frightened and angry at a world that seemed to have abandoned them. Almost all who made it to graduation became truck and taxi drivers, got factory jobs, or cooked, washed dishes and served customers in the countless roadside food stalls and shops.
We arrived a little after 8:00 am. Ms. Lee was standing in the schoolyard with other faculty members, greeting the students. On my first trip to China years ago, as often as not I would see schools begin with an overbearing pep talk, delivered in the schoolyard by the principal to students who would then turn to calisthenics, all lined up in their uniforms, military style, loudspeakers blaring out marching music. This was not like that at all. Ho Yu is a “through-train” college and primary school, meaning that it enrolls students from grades one through twelve. We watched the older students shooting basketballs in small groups and the younger ones racing up to Ms. Lee and the other faculty members, grinning, looking for a hug and laughing when they got it, folding themselves into Ms. Lee’s skirts, her hand curling around their faces in a caress that was returned in their eyes.
Ms. Lee had started out as a high school history teacher and then became a high school principal, at a school run under the auspices of a group that embraced the teaching of three religions: Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism. And then they asked her to add a primary school to her high school, to become the principal of this through-train school.
The students’ parents were often illiterate, their homes violent, and their future bleak. Many of the students were afraid to come to the school because of the unchecked power of the Triad gangs. Expecting little from their teachers, they would sit in class sullen and unresponsive, hardly learning.
Her first task, Ms. Lee said, was not to educate her students&mash;that would come later—but to get the students to trust the faculty and staff. Her top priority was to find staff who had both the desire and the skill to reach out to the students, take a personal interest in them, and help them address the problems they faced in their daily lives. They took the kids on trips to places they had never been before, took an interest in their personal lives, tried to run interference for them when they got in trouble, got help for them when they could. They were there for these young people day and night, and in the process earned their trust.
It was a very slow process. It took, Ms. Lee said, five years. Which is to say that Ms. Lee paid very little attention to academic achievement for five years after becoming principal of this school. She knew that she would not be able to lift the academic performance of her flock until the school had become a refuge from a very difficult world and the faculty had become people with whom the students could feel safe and, indeed, loved. The students would not have confidence in themselves and believe they had a future worth investing in until they had adults in their lives who believed in them.
To this day, the faculty is there for the students, whatever it takes. The gates open at 8:00 am. Classes end at 4:30 pm and that’s when the sports and extracurricular programs begin. Most students and teachers are gone by 6:00 pm. But many stay, partly because they are so deeply engaged in what they are doing. Ms. Lee recently tried to lock the doors at 8:30 pm. Many teachers objected, saying that their students had nowhere else to do their homework and, in many cases, there was no one home and they wanted to make sure their students were safe. But the teachers, I said, must have their own families to go home to. Oh, said Ms. Lee, it is the younger teachers who do not yet have kids of their own who are objecting to closing the school at 8:30 pm.
But when the time came, Ms. Lee was all business. I asked her whether her teachers specialized in math and science or language and social studies in the primary grades, as is so often the case in Asian schools. Ms. Lee looked at me with eyes of steely determination. All my teachers, she said, have majored in the one or two subjects that they teach. Even the primary school level teachers specialize. You cannot, she said, really teach a subject well, even at the primary school level, unless you have studied it hard at the graduate level. When students are having trouble, she said, the teachers must be able to make accurate guesses as to the nature of the student’s misunderstandings. That requires deep understanding of the subject.
We asked Ms. Lee how she selected her staff. She turned to two other faculty members in the room. Both vice-principals, they had been with her for fifteen years. One had served at the Diocesan Boys School, the prestigious Hong Kong high school referred to earlier, before coming to this school. We asked why she had come to Ho Yu. Because, she said, these students needed me more. We asked Ms. Lee why she picked her. Because of her smile, she said. She explained that her vice-principal had met all her academic standards, which were very high, standards on which she would not bend. But that was not enough. She was determined to have teachers who could earn the trust of the students. She wanted she said, “teachers who could bring sunshine into the lives of these students.” The capacity to bring sunshine was just as important as deep knowledge of the subjects they would teach. She wanted teachers who would love their students and do whatever was necessary to help them succeed.
We took a tour of the school. The last classroom we visited was its pride and joy, a biotechnology lab. A few years ago, a wealthy businessman and scientist had donated a sophisticated biotechnology laboratory, focused on genetic research, to a local university. He had included in his gift equipment that would enable the university to engage school children in the study of biotechnology and genetics, but, as it turned out, the university had no interest in educating the wider community. Ms. Lee, ever alert, seized the opportunity. The donor was delighted. Ms. Lee worked with him and with her teachers to develop a curriculum, materials and training for the teachers.
The students were off-the-wall engaged. When we walked in, we found not only a very impressive array of equipment, but carefully framed materials that did a wonderful job of explaining in plain English some rather complex topics in technology and biology. The whole instructional system was project-based. Ms. Lee explained that access to this kind of equipment gave the students the feeling that the sky was the limit for them if they were willing to put in the hard work needed to gain the necessary skills; they were valued not just by the staff of the school, but by the wider community.
Then Ms. Lee took us outside to a paved parking space marked off by carefully painted yellow lines. Parked with perfect geometric accuracy within those lines was a bus. She explained that they had worked with that donor (who had paid for it all) to custom design every facet of that bus apart from the frame and its Volvo power train. It was gorgeous. Inside was a mobile laboratory, outfitted to enable everyone from the very young to the very old to learn about biotechnology, not just by reading about it or watching videos, although they were certainly there and very well done, but to doit. It was bit like a modern crime lab, a place where the visitor could take a tissue sample and analyze the DNA. It was, we thought, impossible to visit this bus and not walk away excited about biotechnology, what it is, how it works, and what it could accomplish. The bus goes all over Hong Kong, a roving educational facility, realizing the donor’s dream.
Today, Ho Yu College and Primary School sends 80 percent of its students to some form of postsecondary education. There are, of course, schools in the United States with dedicated staffs who have taken their school from the ranks of poor performers to much higher performance. But this school visit made me think. Would our accountability systems tolerate a principal who spent five years building trust in her teachers before turning to academic performance? How many principals of our elementary schools would insist that all teachers specialize and all have bachelors’ degrees in the subjects they teach? How many of our elementary school faculties would get upset if the principal tried to lock the doors at 8:30 pm? How many local business owners would equip a school in the worst section of town with a real biotechnology lab? How many of our schools serving almost entirely free and reduced lunch students are sending 80 percent of its students to some form of postsecondary education?
Cross-posted at Education Week.
A few weeks ago, I reported on my recent visits to several schools in Hong Kong. I’ve just returned from another visit to that city, the purpose of which was to explore the policy context in which those schools developed. We wanted to understand, from the point of view of those who had driven the process as well as those in the schools who had a ringside seat for its implementation, what the policies put forward by the Education Commission in 2000 had been intended to accomplish, how they were experienced by those they were intended to affect, what went right and wrong with the implementation, and what those present at the creation think needs to be done now.
The new Hong Kong government created the Education Commission as the British colonial era came to an end and Hong Kong’s new identity as the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China began. The Commission’s report was issued in 2000, the result of an extraordinary process in which it conducted more than 300 separate consultations and received more than 30,000 separate written suggestions and comments. Not your usual commission report, it contains a cogent and powerful analysis of the context in which the policy was made and offers as humane a conception of the purposes of education and as persuasive a proposal for achieving those purposes as I have seen anywhere. You can read it here.
I will focus on a few key features. The reforms were driven by the realization that Hong Kong’s manufacturing economy, which had provided employment to millions of people with a modest education, was on its way out, being replaced by a financial services industry, consulting and management services and related industries that required far better-educated and much more highly skilled people. But they also realized that the future, not just of employment and work but of many other things as well, was becoming chronically unpredictable. The education system, which had been designed long ago to produce a small, highly educated elite and provide everyone else with just a very basic education, would no longer be good enough.
That system, based on an aggressive tracking and streaming design that favored memorization of facts, rote mastery of procedures, narrow specialization and advancement based only on exam scores, would no longer serve Hong Kong’s interests. They would have to redesign the whole system. The secondary schools would not change unless the universities changed their entrance requirements. They would not be able to get students from widely different backgrounds to very high standards without first-rate teachers. The system would not produce students with the qualities they were after without rethinking the curriculum. That would not matter unless they also rethought how students would be assessed. None of the actors would be likely to change much of anything in reality without major changes in the incentives they faced.
Hong Kong had an excellent teacher corps. For a long time, Hong Kong universities took in less than 1.5 percent of the cohort. Many who did not get in went to the teacher training institutes. When only 1.5 percent of the cohort got into university, the quality of those who went into the teacher training institutes was very high. But over time, when 18 percent got into universities and many of the other top high school graduates went abroad to university, the quality of those who went into teaching declined. The Commission proposed greatly ratcheting up the requirements for entering the profession.
The curriculum and the pathways through the school experience were based on the British system, which strongly encouraged a low standard for most students and a much higher standard for a few, with a narrow path upward for the best students headed for university, who typically specialized in a small handful of subjects in the latter part of high school. The curriculum was focused on the traditional school subjects. Traditional methods of instruction prevailed.
The whole structure of this system was radically changed. The curriculum was both broadened and deepened. The old aptitude test at the end of primary school was abolished. Three public assessments were consolidated into only one at the end of the 12th grade. The focus of the curriculum shifted from teaching the standard subjects to providing a set of five learning “experiences,” which taken together, would enable students to acquire the whole range of cognitive knowledge and skills, attributes and values that Hong Kong wanted them to have. Some of those experiences would be provided in the classroom, some on the playing field and others through the extracurricular program and outside the school.
One way of expressing at least part of the aim was as a T-shaped curriculum, one arm broad enough to prepare the students for the unexpected and the other narrow and strong enough to enable them to hit the ground running with a very high level of preparation in a particular arena. The new system was meant to shift toward a design that would be heavily project- and problem-based. A number of subjects previously taught separately were integrated in the form of “combined science” and “integrated humanities,” and a new arena called “liberal studies” was created, focused on few broad contemporary issues—like the environment—of concern to the Hong Kong community.
The Commission saw the Hong Kong schools as too much like each other, cut from the same mold, and an old mold at that. They wanted to shake them up, introduce some competition into the system, provide some relief from the regulatory regime overseen by the central administration.
These aims will seem familiar to Americans. The scheme they devised was similar to the idea of charter schools in the United States, but different in crucial ways. Rather than create new schools, they wanted to limit the opportunity to get regulatory relief to the best of the existing schools. These were schools that had been established by church-related groups and other private associations and organizations, typically many years earlier, and had excellent reputations. They offered them financial support at the same level as the regular government schools, but as a block grant that they could use as they wished, rather than with the control over line item expenditures that the government exercises over the government schools. Importantly, these schools can also select their students, while the regular government schools must accept the students assigned by the government in a complex system designed to mix students by ability level. In practice, however, almost all of these schools offer scholarships, some to as many as 40 percent of their students. And the government relieved them of the obligation to teach both Chinese and English and offered them the right to charge for their services.
There was no doubt in our minds that these reforms, on the whole, worked and worked very well. We could see that in the high quality of the schools we had visited as well as the international comparative data for Hong Kong schools. The vision promulgated by the 2000 Commission report and the people who had produced it was alive and well. But we were concerned. Public policy appears to be combining with demographics to cloud the future of education in Hong Kong.
First, while the government required all primary teachers to have university degrees for the first time, it did not pay them at the rate that university graduates should command, which understandably infuriated them. Second, while the government did broaden considerably the range of learning experiences that teachers are supposed to provide, it did not really reduce the enormous number of lessons they are supposed to teach as prescribed by the syllabi. The combined effect of these policies has had a very destructive impact on teacher morale, produced a profound lack of trust in the government and sapped a lot of the enthusiasm for the reforms.
Third, the school-age population of Hong Kong has been falling like a rock as the cost of living in Hong Kong has skyrocketed and the fertility rate has declined. The government’s response was a heavy-handed attempt to close the weakest schools. In the end the schools were not closed, but the debate produced rising anxiety among teachers about job security and further reduced their confidence in the government.
Fourth, the parts of the reform agenda that were intended to loosen up the system and produce more variety and better quality were not working as intended. The Commission had hoped that the formerly private schools now given more autonomy by the government but largely free of detailed supervision would constitute at least half of the whole school system. But, as of today, they are only eight percent of the whole. Among the best schools in Hong Kong, they are performing as well as ever. But they stand accused of reducing equity in the city, because they enroll many of the most favored and capable students. In much of the world, this happens because low-income parents, confined to parts of the city in which crime is high and transportation is expensive, struggle to take advantage of the choices offered by school choice systems. This, however, does not apply to Hong Kong, where crime is almost zero and public transportation is safe, cheap and ubiquitous. But government has been reluctant to expand the system for fear that schools that lack a strong record of outstanding performance over many years would abuse the autonomy provided to the schools that have been given this freedom to date.
The people who drove the reforms of 16 years ago do not regard any of these setbacks as fatal or irreversible. Indeed, they see the need for new reforms. I very much hope they get the chance to make the case for those reforms and I hope Hong Kong listens. This extraordinary, yeasty cockpit of messy democracy, sitting astride east and west, is in the crosshairs of the forces to which we are all subject, and it is very lucky to have produced citizens who are as good at thinking about what it will take to cope with those changes as any I have met anywhere.
Cross-posted at Education Week.
In last week’s blog, I called attention to proposals from some Silicon Valley entrepreneurs for government to provide income support to most of the population, in view of the possibility that intelligent machines may end up doing most of the work that needs to be done. Pointing to the need that most of us have for the sense of dignity and worth that comes from the work we do, and the likelihood that educators would be forced to distinguish between those who will have work and those who won’t in the Silicon Valley scenario, I suggested that it is important for our country to think hard about how to cope with advancing automation.
I’ve heard from a number of people who are sympathetic to the views I expressed in that blog, but I also heard from some who were concerned that my blog might be interpreted as a rejection of all forms of income support for workers who have suffered from globalization and advancing automation. In this blog, I will try to clarify my views on this point.
As I see it, we need to make a fundamental distinction between lifetime cash payments to able adults without any conditions, which is what the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are talking about, and assistance offered to workers who want work but cannot find it because of public policies pursued in the name of free trade as well as the advance of automation.
Though few Americans know this, the Scandinavian welfare state is built on this distinction. Those nations offer generous income support benefits to able-bodied people who are out of work, but only if they are willing to take a decent job if one is offered or if they enroll in a genuine education or job training program. Most of those countries have established much more robust job search and counseling programs as well as job training programs than are available in the United States. They also offer more financial assistance than is available in the United States for job seekers to go to interviews at some distance from their home. The aim of all this support is not simply to get the individual any job, but to do as much as possible to help that individual get at least as good a job as the one they had, if not a better one. This is not a matter of kindness. The Scandinavians know that if a lot of their people are moving from good jobs to jobs that are not as good, their whole society will be worse off. It is in everyone’s interest for as many workers as possible to be employed in jobs that pay well and have good prospects.
In the model I have just described, income support is just one part of an overall policy designed to help workers whose jobs are disappearing to get jobs as good or better as fast as possible and take advantage of whatever education and training is required to make that adjustment in the process. Income support is not seen as welfare, if by welfare one means providing income support to able-bodied people who are not seeking employment or getting the education and training they need to get one.
But what, you might ask, do the Scandinavians have to do with it? I brought it up not because I am in favor of raising American taxes to the levels that would be necessary to provide the same level of state benefits that we see in Scandinavia—I am not—but because I think the Scandinavian approach to worker adjustment policy makes a lot of sense in a world in which millions of American workers are suffering from the results of trade policies that are benefitting many other American workers. The right response to that problem is not to abandon the trade policies, but to do much more than we have done to help the people harmed by them. I am attracted to the Scandinavian approach to this specific problem because they do not see this aid as welfare for people to be pitied but as help to worthy people who need it to again become independent contributors as soon as possible.
So what policies should we be pursuing? I argued in my last blog that one reason low-wage work pays so poorly is that we have too many people with low skills chasing a declining number of jobs requiring only low skills. What we need is fewer people with low skills and more people with higher skills (which will reduce the gap in income between the high skilled and the low skilled). That does not, of course, mean that the low-skill jobs are going to disappear any time soon. These two facts combine to compel us to make sure that on the one hand, people with low skills who are willing to work hard can support themselves and their families and hold their heads up high. At the same time, it means that we have to start radically reducing the number of people who have only low skills by greatly increasing the skills of working-age people who have only low skills to offer, people of all ages. These are, as I see it, the twin imperatives of labor market policy for the low skilled. Note that neither of these policies offers anything to people who are not willing to take decent jobs or get the education and training needed to qualify for decent jobs.
Here is what I would do:
This is not welfare. It is not a bone thrown to surplus workers whose work is no longer needed. It is an investment in the most important resource the nation has: its citizens. It is affordable. And it will pay off.
Cross-posted at Education Week.
I remember when I was in high school reading sci-fi novels about disembodied humans—only the brains left, floating in some unidentified liquid in a transparent ball—connected to their environment by a gaggle of wires to a machine that enabled them to communicate with each other, gain sustenance and carry on, sort of. The novel explained that this was all that was left of humankind. All the work needed to sustain them was done by automated machinery, designed and built long ago by real humans. And I remember being horrified, not at all convinced that this would be a “life” worth living. What would make it possible, of course, would be enormous advances in science and technology, advances that would postpone death indefinitely and, at the same time, enable automated devices to do everything we needed to have done.
I could not help remembering these vivid images when I learned recently that a group of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have become rather excited about a policy proposal they are advancing to deal with the social and economic consequences of advancing automation. The idea has been around for a long time under various names—universal basic income, unconditional basic income, social dividend, guaranteed annual income, citizen’s income, negative income tax—but what all of the schemes amount to is a system under which all citizens would be entitled to a guaranteed check from the government that would be enough to pay for all the basics—food, clothing, medical care, etc.—whether or not they are working and—in most versions—contingent on nothing.
It turns out that the citizens of Switzerland will soon be voting on whether they want their government to set up experiments that would implement such policies (the current government is opposed). Finland and the Netherlands are studying the idea. Members of the French parliament have supported the idea of doing an experiment. Think tanks all over the world are debating their merits. People are writing papers and holding conferences on the theoretical foundations of such policies as well as the likely consequences of adopting them.
The idea of government guaranteeing a basic income has made for strange bedfellows. Libertarians like the guarantee because they see it as a way to minimize government’s role. Just add up all the current forms of government assistance to citizens and families and cut a check for the per citizen expenditure and fire all the people who now staff the government agencies at all levels of government who are now involved in getting the services to their intended clients. Liberals like it because they see the guarantee as a way to put the client in charge of their own lives and to lift the poor out of poverty. More recently, they see it as a way to tamp down the resurgent far right by putting a floor under the evaporating income of workers, especially in Europe. Conservatives—Milton Friedman was one of its advocates—like it because it stops the proliferation of government agencies in its tracks and because it solves the problem of the “poverty gap.” That is the problem caused by the fact that, under the rules of income-contingent support programs of all kinds, the support ends when the individual gets paying work, which creates a disincentive to work. Under the basic income plan, everyone gets the basic income, whether or not they are working, so there is no disincentive to work. The overhead now involved in administering government programs would be cut to the bone—just the cost of cutting the checks and getting them to the recipients—so the same amount of money would go much further.
The interesting question is why many leaders of the Silicon Valley community—not usually given to backing political proposals in their official capacity—are putting their weight behind it. What they say is that they are in a position to understand the potential of technology to destroy jobs better than anyone and they want to take a responsible position by offering a way to deal with the social upheaval that is likely to occur as hundreds of thousands and then millions of jobs disappear in the onrush of automation. They point for an example to the potential for automated driving to put millions of taxi drivers, truck drivers, bus drivers and limo drivers out of work. This, they say, is only the tip of the iceberg; much more of the same is right around the corner.
My purpose here is not to debate the merits of the basic income guarantee proposals. They come in many shapes and sizes, but there is very little evidence concerning the actual effects of such policies on human behavior. What interests me is that the idea has attracted so much attention in so many places, particularly in Silicon Valley.
Among the leaders of Silicon Valley who are interest in these proposals is Sam Altman, the president of Y Combinator, who has committed $10 million of his own money to an experimental trial of the guaranteed basic income idea. Matt Krisloff, the manager of the project is quoted as saying that “We think there could be a possibility where 95 percent—or a vast majority—of people won’t be able to contribute to the workforce…. We need to start preparing for that transformation.”
“Basic income is about wanting to embrace automation,” said Albert Wenger, who is a partner in Union Square Ventures. Wenger thinks humanity will be better off spending less time on tasks that can be automated and more on fighting climate change, exploring space, and preventing the next pandemic. Providing a guaranteed basic income will, he thinks, allow innovation to flourish.
But Sam Altman is quoted as saying that the minimum wage jobs will get innovated away and the people holding them will be an “idle class.” “Government will just have to give these people money.”
Really! This puts the matter in its starkest form. Are we in fact facing a future in which advancing automation will make it unnecessary for most humans to work? A world in which there will be plenty everywhere we look and the only question that remains will be how that plenty is divided? A report just came out showing that, since the Great Recession, most of the job growth has been among knowledge workers, not blue-collar workers. Some have argued that this data shows that automation is not eliminating jobs, just ratcheting up the level of education required to secure the jobs that will be available. Others say that the jury is still very much out on this point, that it is much too early to tell whether advancing automation will have the devastating effects predicted by Altman, Krisloff and a growing number of others.
What should those of us in the education community make of all this?
I must say that my first reaction to the pronouncements of Altman and Kristoff was to imagine how the supporters of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders would respond if they could hear what these two gentleman had to say. These two entrepreneurs are, perhaps unwittingly, casting up an image of the world in which a handful of people like themselves pile up enormous fortunes doing work they love while a far larger number of people are provided pittances by the government to lead lives of “leisure.” It is, in my view, attitudes like this that are fueling no small part of the resentment powering this election cycle. If the people rebelling now feel that they have been cast aside, just wait until they are told that their services are no longer needed and government will take care of them with a handout. As I see it, the most devastating aspect of the condition of many people now out of work is the damage to their self-respect, their image of themselves as contributors to their family and their community, the kind of self-respect that comes from the dignity conferred by work that is valued by the community. The redoubled rebellion is unlikely to be quelled by announcements that those on this new dole are now free to think deep thoughts about protecting the environment.
Consider what the educator might have to do if this vision of automated life comes to pass. We would be sorting students into two bins, one bin for the few masters of the universe who get the great jobs, create the future and amass enough money to make sure that it is their children who succeed them and not the children of the others who are not as fortunate as they to be in the driver’s seat when the ball got rolling. And then there will be the bin for the others, who really do notneed all those wonderful skills that the masters of the universe need, because they will not need to earn a living and will not have an opportunity to gain the dignity that comes with paid work.
And how will we decide which bin to put each child into? We could do it on “merit,” but, given the overwhelming advantages enjoyed by the master class, we might just as well tell them that their children will automatically be assigned to an education designed to prepare them for the jobs their parents have.
You may think that I am conjuring this picture up out of thin wisps of reality, that these are not choices we are ever likely to have to make, that it will all work out. I am not so sure. I think the advance of automation will be much swifter than most people think, that we will have to decide what sort of economy—and society—we want, and that, if we want an economy that can provide good jobs and rewarding work for everyone, we will have to devise policies to make that happen, policies that are not even being discussed in this election. I will be most interested in learning what you think about these issues.
Date: June 24, 2016
Date: June 17, 2016
Date: June 10, 2016
Date: June 3, 2016
Date: May 27, 2016