With the newspapers full of crises, it can be hard to maintain a proper perspective on the progress humanity has made, and to remember that there are individuals striving every day to make the world a better place. In a recent interview, businessman and philanthropist Bill Gates discussed the improving state of humanity, and the work that he is doing through private charity to help those in need. He said,
I think the idea that people are worried about problems, like climate change or terrorism or these challenges of the future, that’s okay. But boy, they really lose perspective of what’s happened over the last few hundred years. And how science and innovation have been a central factor of that. And I think that’s too bad, because people are lucky to live now. And they should see that progress is actually taking place faster during their lives than at any time in history.
One of the major initiatives of the Gates Foundation, for example, aims to eliminate polio. The data bear out how much progress has already been made towards that end:
In 1980, about half of all children received the polio vaccine. Today, around 90% of children receive the vaccine, and eradication of the condition is in sight – just as people eradicated smallpox in 1979.
Gates is also among the many caring individuals working to eliminate malaria and malnutrition, areas where humanity has already made great strides. Insecticide‐treated mosquito nets, for example, protect more children from malaria in Sub‐Saharan Africa:
Malnutrition among children is also declining. In populous developing regions, such as East Asia and the Pacific, malnutrition affected about 20% of children in 1990. More must be done, but today malnutrition affects fewer than 6% of children in those areas.
Even one child afflicted by polio, malaria, or malnutrition is too many, but the dramatic improvements the world has made on these fronts should be celebrated. Like Gates, while working to make the world better we must not lose a proper perspective on the progress humankind has already made.
Whether the Common Core is good policy, or was federally driven, is not dictated by polling results. But the Core’s political fate is tied to public opinion, which is probably why pro‐Core pollsters are spinning like mad, and supporters like Bill Gates are undertaking a new PR blitz.
Achieve, Inc., a creator of the Core along with the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, has released Common Core survey results for several years running. What these polls have primarily been notable for finding is (1) very few people know much about the Common Core, and (2) if you feed respondents a glowing description of the Core they – surprise! – like it. At the end of last week, Achieve released their latest such survey.
What did they find? According to the main point of their summary, “solid majorities of voters support common standards, common assessments, and allowing teacher (sic) and students time to adjust to these new expectations.” But the really important finding was this: Of the people who reported knowing about the Common Core – those not relying on the loaded description of the Core as all wonderfully state‐led and egalitarian – 40 percent reported having unfavorable opinions of the Core, versus 37 percent favorable.
Alas, Achieve blamed this, essentially, on people being misinformed by vocal Core opponents:
It is likely this mixed number is attributable to CCSS opponents who in the past year have made their opposition known through all media outlets, leaving a more negative “impression” among voters.
Opposition couldn’t be based on evidence and logic. No! Common Core is too pure and beloved. It must be coming form a lot of light‐thinking, highly impressionable people. In contrast, respondents reporting that they agree with a loaded, glowing description they were just read? That’s real support!
Distaste for the Core among people who report being knowledgeable about it is mirrored in recent polling in New York, the state, along with Kentucky, that is furthest along implementing the Core. After massive “proficiency” decreases under its first round of Core testing, New York is also the state that is most convulsed. A February Siena College poll found Empire Staters very closely split on the Core.
That support cracks after people learn about the Core is almost certainly why defenders like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Bill Gates are undertaking a massive PR campaign to push the Core. Unfortunately, based on an ABC News interview with Gates this weekend, and longstanding pro‐Core practice, the main messages are likely going to be that the Feds have nothing meaningful to do with the Core; high standards will revolutionize education; and anyone who tells you otherwise is willfully misleading you.
But here’s the thing: Core supporters can spin and spread gloss wherever they want, the more the public experiences the Core, the less they seem to like it. And then, of course, there is all the evidence and logic showing what a policy failure the Core is likely to be. You know, showing that the Feds have driven and must drive the Core; high standards – if the Core even is that – will not fix education; and many Core opponents know exactly what they’re talking about.
How do you know the Common Core is in trouble? You could religiously follow the news in New York, Indiana, Florida, and many other states. Or you could read just two new op-eds by leading Core supporters who fear their side is getting bludgeoned. Not bludgeoned in the way they describe -- an education hero assaulted by kooks and charlatans -- but clobbered nonetheless. As Delaware governor Jack Markell (D) and former Georgia governor Sonny Perdue (R) put it:
This is a pivotal moment for the Common Core State Standards.
Although 45 states quickly adopted the higher standards created by governors and state education officials, the effort has begun to lose momentum. Some are now wavering in the face of misinformation campaigns from people who misrepresent the initiative as a federal program and from those who support the status quo. Legislation has been introduced in at least 12 states to prohibit implementation and states have dropped out of the two major Common Core assessment consortia.
Sadly, Markell and Perdue's piece, and one from major Core bankroller Bill Gates, illustrate why the Core may well be losing: Defenders offer cheap characterizations of their opponents while ignoring basic, crucial facts. Meanwhile, the public is learning the truth.
Both pieces employ the most hulking pro-Core deception, completely ignoring the massive hand of Washington behind state Core adoption. For all intents and purposes, adoption was compulsory to compete in the $4.35-billion Race to the Top program, a part of the "stimulus" at the nadir of the Great Recession. While some states may have eventually adopted the Core on their own, Race to the Top was precisely why so many "quickly adopted the higher standards." Indeed, many governors and state school chiefs promised to adopt the Core before it was even finished. Why? They had to for Race to the Top! And let's not pretend federal coercion wasn't intended all along: In 2008 the Core-creating Council of Chief State School Officers and National Governors Association published a report calling for just such federal pressure.
Every year, Microsoft founder Bill Gates drafts a letter charting the course for the foundation he created with his wife, Melinda. This year, the focus is on the value of precise measurement in driving innovation and progress. His inspiration was the book The Most Powerful Idea in the World, “a brilliant chronicle by William Rosen of the many innovations it took to harness steam power.”
Certainly mensuration was important to the development of the steam engine, but there was a much more crucial ingredient, and unless we understand the role that it played, solutions to the world’s most pernicious problems will remain elusive. The key to grasping this missing ingredient is the aeolipile. As shown in the accompanying video, the aeolipile is a hollow metal reservoir with multiple radial “exhaust pipes,” all of whose spouts point off tangentially from the hub. To make it work, you simply suspend it, fill it with water, and light a candle under it. And… Voila! You’ve harnessed steam power to generate rotary motion.
This device is also known as Hero’s Engine, after Hero of Alexandria — who invented it over two thousand years ago…. Despite its seemingly obvious practical applications, Hero’s Engine was never more than a party favor. It had not the slightest impact on the course of human history. Why not?
The ultimate causes are contentious (Deirdre McCloskey will give you one answer), but the proximate one is obvious: the aeolipile was never commercialized. There wasn’t a sufficient network of entrepreneurs and investors toiling away in ancient Alexandria to relentlessly seek out, capitalize, and commercialize new technologies and innovations. The steam engine was refined and widely deployed during the Industrial Revolution only because such an entrepreneurial network had come into existence by the late 18th century, first in England and soon thereafter, elsewhere.
And that’s the real key to massively disseminating the benefits of innovation: enlisting the assistance of the free enterprise system. It is not a coincidence that the productivity of elementary and secondary education has collapsed while productivity in virtually every other field has steadily improved. Education has been largely excluded from the free enterprise system for the past 150 years.
So, while precise measurement certainly has its role to play, I hope someday to read an annual letter from Bill Gates that focuses on the need to harness all the freedoms and incentives of the marketplace for the betterment of education the world over.
A WSJ interview with Bill Gates includes this pivotal observation:
“I believe in innovation and that the way you get innovation is you fund research and you learn the basic facts.” Compared with R&D spending in the pharmaceutical or information‐technology sectors, he says, next to nothing is spent on education research. “That’s partly because of the problem of who would do it. Who thinks of it as their business? The 50 states don’t think of it that way, and schools of education are not about research. So we come into this thinking that we should fund the research.”
While it’s true that public school districts don’t spend a lot on R&D, a vast army of academics has been cranking out research in this field for generations. The Education Resources Information Center, a database of education studies dating back to 1966, boasts 1.3 million entries. So the problem is not a lack of research, but rather that most of the research is useless and that the rare exceptions have been ignored by the public schools.
Why? Because, as Bill Gates correctly observes, hardly anyone thinks of education as their business. And how do you get masses of brilliant entrepreneurs to think of education as their business? You make it easy for them to make it their business. When and where education is allowed to participate in the free enterprise system, entrepreneurs enter that field just as they do any other–and excellence is identified and scales up. It is a process that happens automatically due to the freedoms and incentives inherent in that system. More than that, it is the only system in the history of humanity that has ever led to the routine identification and mass replication of excellent products and services.
So what happens if you want market outcomes but reject the market system that creates them? You are left to re‐invent the wheel… without the only value of pi that makes a circle.
“Bijan Pakzad, an extravagant fashion designer and boutique owner who happily and unabashedly made wealthy men look rich, feel rich and smell rich,” has died, reports the Washington Post. Mr. Pakzad explained that he catered to customers who “normally aren’t concerned about inflation.”
His slogan — “the costliest men’s wear in the world” — helped his opulent clothing store become known as the West Coast’s one‐stop Savile Row.
While drinking champagne presented by white‐gloved butlers, customers could shop for $2,500 silk pajamas, $1,500 cologne, a $24,000 mink‐lined topcoat, a $19,000 ostrich vest, $55,000 crocodile luggage or even a $120,000 Mongolian chinchilla bedspread lined with silk.
Who could afford such clothes? Warren Buffett and Bill Gates? Yes, but they don’t look like they spend so much money on clothes. The Post names a few customers:
From the moment in 1976 when Mr. Pakzad first opened Bijan, his Rodeo Drive emporium, three words bedecked the entrance: “By appointment only.”
The locked‐door policy made clear that Mr. Pakzad exclusively catered to men who had money, power or fame — and usually all three. His clients included President Obama, Frank Sinatra, Cary Grant, Stevie Wonder, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Michael Jordan.
Wait, President Obama? That’s not the same Barack Obama who told college graduates not to “take your diploma, walk off this stage, and chase only after the big house and the nice suits and all the other things that our money culture says you should buy,” is it?
Bill Gates is addressing the Council of Chief State School Officers today. According to the NYT, he'll tell them to bite the bullet and start making sound budgetary decisions like rewarding teachers based on merit instead of time served, and not handing out raises simply for the trappings of higher learning, but rather for demonstrated prowess in the classroom. In principle, that's good advice.
But it's an ultimately futile effort, and here's why:
Bill established himself early on as a pretty sharp computer programmer, and no doubt he still is. But there's only so much you can do when the hardware you're writing for is a pile of junk. Public schooling is the Coleco Adam of education systems.
The Adam was a pretty cute looking machine for its time (1983), but it had some fundamental flaws. Among other things, turning the power on or off had a habit of sending out electromagnetic pulses that fried the data on its storage tapes. Oops. Now a good programmer might figure how to mitigate the damage caused by that problem (I dunno, treat the two tapes as a RAID 1 array, maybe?), but then the machine also had its power-supply located in the mandatory (and noisy, and slow) printer that came with it. So if the printer had to be serviced, you were left with a paperweight. Hard to fix that one in software.