Friday, September 13th, 2013

Are The Startup Fellas Hellbent On Destroying Education Even Literate?

School is neat.Lost in the maelstrom of sadness, confusion and malaise that marks our annual observance of September 11th was a Medium post by Udacity's new Director of Mobile Engineering, one Oliver Cameron.

Here's the opening paragraph of Cameron's post, "The Story of Building an Education Startup".

Most revolutionary companies aren’t born with the intent to change the world, yet there I was trying to do exactly that. I was on the verge of starting my third company, and I wanted to do something truly special. I listed all of the industries I thought I could have an impact in, and quickly became fixated on education. It’s a market that has the potential to impact billions of lives for the better. There are so many students failed by the system. “I can fix it”, I thought.

Oh is that right, because I don't see how, I retorted as I read this eye-popping document, which only goes downhill from there. Seriously, how? Because that ain't a paragraph, and these are not sentences.

To say nothing of the fact that education is not a market, I muttered, emerging from italics in cold rage.

Education is a public good. Not a market! Not a money-making opportunity for would-be privatizing Silicon Valley vampires.

It's not Oliver Cameron's fault that he appears to believe that he, a near-illiterate who chose education as the field he wanted to "fix" more or less by means of a dartboard, is remotely fit to attempt any such thing. This is the water we're swimming in, where every industry, every social problem apparently exists merely to be "disrupted" by a bunch of over-funded clowns in Palo Alto. And I know that the Director of Mobile Engineering is not going to be in charge of designing course content at Udacity. But please allow me to register my absolute objection to giving this person one red cent of public money in order to help "fix" anything, unless someone wants to make him write on the chalkboard 576 times that possessive "its" has no apostrophe—"We started talking and I loved everything about the team and it’s vision"—in which case fine, or indeed, show me to the Kickstarter.

Okay, more Cameron! You won't believe.

It’s clear that iPads are the future of personal computing, but are they going to be the difference between one generation being average and another being excellent? Perhaps the tools weren’t the problem. Could it be that the traditional classroom format itself is broken? I dove deeper [...]

Reinventing the classroom was now my aim [...] the ever-rising tuition fees in higher education meant there was an opportunity to serve those who simply couldn’t afford the costs. I dreamt up ideas for a new kind of school, one where the student was taught at a dynamic pace. Working from home would be encouraged, and the teachers would always be at hand to help whenever needed. The class content would be free, but the student would pay per-session whenever they needed help from the teacher. “I finally cracked it”, I thought.

Here is the perfect decoction of the emptiness, nay, the vacuum, at the center of Silicon Valley's culture of "disruption." Cameron doesn't need to cite, or have even read, a single book about sociology, doesn't need a degree in education, doesn't have to have taught a single class himself in his whole life in order to believe in all sincerity that he understands "the real problem" with education, after "talking to many teachers." Like so many of our tech savants, he appears to believe that just by applying his "truly special" gifts to any intractable difficulty, hey presto! Problem solved, plus also he will become rich, as a pleasing side-benefit. That this never, or scarcely ever, happens IRL in no way impedes the speeding train of their self-regard.

Cameron maintains his staunch self-confidence even after he realizes that there are big problems with his plans for an education-disruptin' machine, to wit, a lot of deep-pocketed competition: "Companies like Udacity, Coursera, Udemy and more. I read up on pedagogy and classroom theory"—at last!—"in the hope I could compete with them. I saw the love and dedication they had put into their products, and I’m happy to admit that I was discouraged. Beating these companies, with their wealth of knowledge and experience, was going to be an incredibly hard task. Not one to be put off, I decided to go right ahead and compete."

Sure, why not! "Compete"! Okay well, though, eventually he was persuaded to join one of his erstwhile "competitors" instead. He loved everything about the team and it's vision!

Prior to this move, our hero was the founder of a Y Combinator outfit called Everyme, which has since pivoted into a company called Origami, which has taken a bit more than $5 million funding in the last two years. Origami is basically Path plus GroupMe but "for families." How does it help families communicate? A post on their blog explains.


This is exactly how we are are in danger of wrecking our educational system, and so much else. Instead of taking pains to preserve what we have, and demanding that any cuts to funding or alterations in our practices, however minute, be subjected to the most rigorous resistance and interrogation, we're unaccountably willing to risk enormous sums, often in public money, on "experiments" to "fix" what isn't broken—on charter schools, MOOCs, and for-profit universities, for example, in the case of education—only to find that each time, these alleged improvements consist mainly of snake oil and charlatanism.

We might blame the culture of Silicon Valley, which appears to believe that "building an app" and throwing a few million dollars at it is always a good idea; or we might blame California Governor Jerry Brown, who's already squandered some unclear amount of public money on Udacity classes in a disastrous pilot program at San Jose State, which began in January and was suspended in a matter of months. Brown is desperate for band-aids, however tiny, however hopelessly ineffectual, with which he may pretend to conceal the giant hemorrhaging gashes in the state budget (substantially caused by the quintupling of California's prison population since 1980). Here is an idea for you, Governor Brown: legalize marijuana! No matter what the police and private prison lobbies say.

Why are actual educators, experts in the classroom, not at the forefront of education policymaking, where they should be? Why is it not the best profs who are being asked the question (and more to the point, being given the money to answer it, and with deeds, not business plans): "How shall we manage this system?"

Maria Bustillos is a journalist and critic in Los Angeles. Photo by Tiffany Bailey.

36 Comments / Post A Comment

Tulletilsynet (#333)

Had me at "I dove deeper".

riotnrrd (#840)

It is like you read my mind, Maria.

"Education is a public good. Not a market!"


@antarctica starts here Yes. Even more, it's a transformative public good. A road is a public good, but if you take the wrong road once you can do something different the next time. No consequences. But if it turns out your school was run by cranks and slackers, the consequences are enormous. What Udacity (et al.) hope to do is avoid worrying about all that transformation and concentrate on education-as-consumption. Don't like stats? Try bio!

stuffisthings (#1,352)

Why don't we just look at the countries with the best education systems, which are all based on watching MOOCs on iPads.

What's that you say, they AREN'T?

K. Mae (#240,479)

@stuffisthings In Finland all the teachers and all the students are robots!

Leon (#6,596)

I always find it insane that these people want to fix the american education system so they start with college.

Unless you are a doctor or architect or some other highly specialized skill, the learning acquired in college is basically fucking optional for the vast majority of Americans.

I'm very pro-college – I went, and I'm glad I did. I studied philosophy, and it has enriched my life etc. But I didn't learn a damned thing in college I need to do my job.

(Oh, I'm in Ops Management at a tech company btw)

What these assholes never address is where things are really broken – little kids. I taught in a middle school in a poor town for a few years after college, and it was insane. It was less than 10 years ago, and the history books still had maps featuring the USSR.

The problem with our education system is that schools are primarily funded by local taxes. Until we ban private schools and nationalize school funding so that the amount of money spent educating every single child in America is the same, rich kids are going to keep going to awesome schools and being better educated at every critical milestone, poor kids are going to keep going to shitty schools and just lagging further and further behind each year they live, and nothing is going to get better.

Leon (#6,596)

@Leon I mean, aren't history books the only place for maps featuring the ussr? I meant social studies, not history, sorry.

deepomega (#1,720)

Everything is a market. Everything! Sometimes it is good to wrestle that market down and regulate the shit out of it – for instance, building roads. But if you think that bids for road construction aren't markets, or that the salaries offered police officers aren't a market, you're just ignoring how humans and money work.

And while I understand your desire to be very careful about making changes, as ever you are ignoring the dismal state of public education. Educational outcomes have plummeted for 40 years even as funding per-student as increased in real dollars. Saying "but the solution is more money!" is no longer convincing.

stuffisthings (#1,352)

@deepomega We're also spending almost three times as much on infrastructure investment as we were in 1993. Maybe if we give the bridges more tests they'll stop collapsing?

deepomega (#1,720)

@stuffisthings Not sure how "we spend more money on infrastructure and look how well that's working out for is" is a good defense, here.

barnhouse (#1,326)

I don't buy your breezy figures to begin with (there are immense regional differences), but as an example, those of us who attended public schools in California in the 70s and 80s experienced a teacher/administer ratio, teacher salaries and benefits, gov't testing requirements etc. etc. very different from today's. Since 1980 the budget for California prisons has gone from something like half a billion to $10 billion. Just about what's been taken from education in the same period.

Would it be better to restore funding, testing requirements, teacher/administrator ratio and teacher salaries and benefits to what they were in 1975? Or hand out billions more to the likes of Udacity? IF you want to see actual improvements in the quality of public education, I mean.

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

@deepomega Umm… in my Java book, it says everything is an Object.

deepomega (#1,720)

@Niko Bellic Even pointers?

@barnhouse Well, there's this:

While I acknowledge Cato is pretty biased, I also have never seen any numbers indicating that funding for pre-college public schools has dropped since the 70s. Please prove me wrong if I am!

In terms of how to fix them – in my dream world, we'd have a way to means test leaving public schools. You can only de-enroll if you make under XXXX dollars a year or if you have a demonstrated need for tailored private education. That'll never happen, tho. Anything we can do to stop affluent kids from fleeing 'em would help, and anything we can do to train up good teachers and get them to stick around too. But you probably wouldn't like my proposals for how to do that!

stuffisthings (#1,352)

@deepomega And actually, though I see what you're getting at, you're wrong that everything is a market. "Public goods" are indeed goods, but there are many ways of producing and allocating goods besides a market. Entire empires have risen and fallen with not more than a tiny percentage of their economic output passing through anything we might know as a "market."

stuffisthings (#1,352)

Anyway I'll stop being pedantic and just point out that research suggests that what happens inside schools affects only about 30% or so of educational outcomes. So the problem with US education outcomes is actually poverty, housing, and inequality. The rising cost, as (to a lesser extent) in higher ed, is probably an example of Baumol's cost disease.

barnhouse (#1,326)

@deepomega haha Cato Institute, are you serious?

Mike Konczal and Aaron Bady wrote a great piece about how this mess happened; though it's about higher ed, the same dynamics apply.

Leon (#6,596)

@deepomega what if we drafted smart people to be teachers like it was healthy people in vietnam and you couldn't stop teaching until you got a certain number of kids into colleges?

(i was kind of kidding at first but now i'm not)

deepomega (#1,720)

@barnhouse Except there is no evidence that we're spending less per student than we were 40 years ago. Let me know if you find any.

@Leon This sounds great to me! I mean I don't think we should let teachers teach for less than 10 years unless they're grossly negligent, so yes: more teaching.

stuffisthings (#1,352)

@deepomega I actually think the US education system is pretty OK. If you airlifted a Finnish school into a poor section of DC or Baltimore I doubt it would make a huge difference in those kids' lives.

The problem here is people seeing bad outcomes and thinking the solution is to wreck the public school system and give a lot of money to Tech Innovators and charter school charlatans.

@deepomega: But California is 49th in the nation in terms of per pupil spending, and almost as low in terms of % taxable resources spent per pupil (source). So it's not as though California's spending has ballooned to unreasonable levels, comparatively. Plus, I think a lot of that increase is for things that weren't as costly before: increased special ed accommodations, security, technology, etc. LAUSD schools now keep enough emergency food, water and medical supplies on hand to support the students and teachers for three days, and I'm positive they didn't do that 30 years ago. It's not cheap.

While I do think funding levels in CA need to go up (49!), I agree that funding is not the only solution. There are a lot of structural problems.

ChrisT78 (#248,192)

@stuffisthings How about the lack of a strong family. Can I say that on here without being called a fascist?

stuffisthings (#1,352)

@ChrisT78 Sure, but you'd have to explain how "strong families" matter when so many of the best-performing countries have much lower marriage rates than the U.S.

latenac (#44,473)

One could really go a long way to improving education by just taking all the money that is being thrown at the Common Core, "education policy makers", and high stakes testing in general and just giving it to the schools to spend on hiring and retaining teachers and fixing the school itself and textbooks, etc. I'd be willing to be there would actually be a lot of money left over not to mention an improvement in school performance. The solution probably isn't more money but really the better spending of what money there is now.

But people who make education software, education testing, the hardware to run it, etc, see a huge money making opportunity and they have the lobbyists to ensure they become the gurus instead of people who actually teach. And Politicians who think unions are the devil and teachers are ungrateful jump at the chance to throw taxpayer money at these glittery programs and charter schools that do no better than public schools. Well really you could just read Diane Ravitch's blog to get even more angry about all of this.

There are so many students failed by the system. “I can fix it”, I thought.

"I hope he's not teaching proper punctuation style," I thought.

Alternate take : "I suppose he might be using British style," I conceded, "but in that case, 'I can fix it' would be in single quotes. Either way, he's wrong somehow."

KimO (#10,765)

I agree this guy seems like an idiot, but to call him near-illiterate seems sensational and unwarranted, particularly in the context of a piece about education. (Anyone who has worked in a school from college on down the line knows from near-illiterate, and believe me, that ain’t it.) I mean, is calling out the its/it’s thing really such a zing? Because it seems to me that by those standards the sentence where Maria uses “out” instead of “our” make her near-illiterate, too.

Sometimes I find the tone of Maria’s writing really uncharitable, even when I agree with her. Her takedown pieces would be much stronger without the personal attacks. The well-chosen quotes alone make it abundantly clear he's a choad without being petty about a grammatical error (in a piece on Medium, for god's sake!!).

barnhouse (#1,326)

@KimO Hello, Maria here. You are SO right, the results are better for any writer I think if you have time to cool your jets a bit. I agree, too, that going all flippant in the middle of a rage is maybe a questionable strategy?? Some people are fine with it, and some aren't.

What I mean by Cameron's illiteracy, though, is nothing to do with the odd typo; it's the total incoherence of his rhetoric. Cameron, an unintelligible writer who claims to know how to "fix" education policy, seems to me to be a kind of avatar for Silicon Valley startup culture in general.

ImThraxx (#6,661)

Yes, this dude and his motivations are totally gross, but: in a general sense, does it really make sense to decide NEVER to attempt to work around/outside the government to improve education? And to never do so using the internet or technology?

I agree with you that the ideal solution would be to defund something generally bad like the prison system and give the money to schools instead. I'm pretty sure that the problem with that is that it isn't possible. What's more, the Palo Alto Clown Brigade (some of whom are not actually clowns but just smart people working on solving silly problems for money) agree that it isn't possible, and most people in their 20s nationwide seem to feel like it isn't possible.

Can you really blame people my age (28) for consistently throwing out government-related solutions to social problems? Maybe this is reductive, but fundamentally your recommendations always seem to involve people organizing themselves and either lobbying the government to do a certain thing or maybe voting for a person that promises to do a certain thing. With the notable exception of gay marriage, in my experience, this has never worked.

We went to war in Iraq anyway. Obama kept Gitmo open. Nobody involved in creating or selling CMOs went to jail. Large-scale do-gooder lobbying of the government tends to fail. Which isn't to say we should totally stop, but can you really blame people for trying to find other options? Maybe the first fumbling steps are pretty stupid, and some of the people involved are wrongheaded, but does that invalidate the whole enterprise?

It seems to me that the answer to your last set of questions is pretty simple: the best educators/professors are not setting educational policy because they are unable to get into a position to do so. More to the point, they probably never will be able to get into that position, and group political action probably won't help them. So the question for individual actors is, are you going to try something, or do nothing?

barnhouse (#1,326)

YES!! (Maria here.) I LOVE this comment it is one of the very best ones I've ever had on a piece, thank you so much for writing it.

I want to work to restore government funding and management of education because government is not going away. They're going to be in charge of most of the money no matter what, so fighting to make sure they do things right is absolutely critical (also, as you observe, very frustrating and difficult, though sometimes progressives really do make a lot of headway, as in the post-WWII period.)

I'm not trying to say that there can never be any role for private enterprise in education. So far, however, we've seen only get-rich-quick schemes dressed up as philanthropy from Silicon Valley. The work of writers on the subject (like Mike Konczal and Aaron Bady, whom I linked up there somewhere) is a good example of how private enterprise (journalism) can affect education policy for the better.

Educators will eventually set educational policy, if the public demands it. So many goals in politics appear impossible until suddenly, it seems already to have happened. As in your example above, if a lot of people hadn't been willing to fight like tigers for marriage equality, hadn't believed it was essential to do so, the day would never have come. The thing is to avoid becoming discouraged by all that goes wrong, and instead take heart from success, and keep fighting.

rmgosselin (#248,181)

I agree that picking on someone for misusing punctuation is rather cheap. I also agree that "spending per pupil" is not really the answer to the education crisis. But if there's one thing that Cameron's manifesto has done, it's to show me, once and for all, that MOOC's are nothing more than the latest face of Disaster Capitalism, and that real educators should oppose them at every turn.

I have taught at a number of colleges, for many years. I've gone back-and-forth on the merits of this question. No more. I'm done. And, oddly enough, I must thank Oliver Cameron for making me realize the true nature of him and his army.

ChrisT78 (#248,192)

Wow, I don't even know where to begin with this hot mess, so I'll just tackle a few of the moronic things that were said.

1. Are you really that dense that you can talk about the basket case that is California's economy and not mention the crushing debt caused by unions and their obscene pensions? THAT is what is killing the state's economy. Oh, and also, that other than Silicon Valley and a few other spots, California is a horrible place to do business in the U.S.

2. Blaming Silicon Valley for attempting to help with California's dismal schools is the height of stupidity. How about shifting some of that blame to the teacher's unions and California's dysfunctional one-party political system? Oh, because that would mean criticizing teachers, unions, and democrats. And we don't do that here, do we?

Perhaps you think the schools of LA and Oakland are top-notch, but there are still a few people with common sense in California that think otherwise. You don't like their ideas, fine. How about getting off your couch and coming up with a better plan. I won't hold my breath.

WayDownSiuth (#246,282)

@ChrisT78 I agree. The OP lost me when she complained that not even a single book about sociology was consulted while trying to solve the education mess. Heaven forbid that someone tries to solve a problem without getting the certified blessing of a sociologist.

scrooge (#2,697)

@ChrisT78 "Wow, I don't even know where to begin with this hot mess".

Too bad it couldn't stay that way.

ChrisT78 (#248,192)

@scrooge Way to contribute to the discussion.

Pave2112 (#247,389)

Dislike of Silicon Valley seems to outweigh the criticism of this dumb idea. Let these startup guys have their fun….best to just ignore them.

joeclark (#651)

I am all in favour of calling out bad writing and copy quality on essentially any site or platform run by adults, and of course especially so in the education context.

But it is pointless to do so on a site that refuses to repair its own type, copy, and character-encoding defects, even when identified, and just as pointless to do so in a jeremiad that complains about apostrophes without being able to typeset one. (And, yes, “out” is not “our.”)

Physician, copy-edit thyself.

Also, the slug of this posting, like all slugs of all postings at the Awl Network™, is a joke.

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