"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." - Thomas Jefferson 1820

"There is a growing technology of testing that permits us now to do in nanoseconds things that we shouldn't be doing at all." - Dr. Gerald Bracey author of Rotten Apples in Education

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Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Conflict Between Money and Principles

There is much talk today about principles. We just got through an election cycle where every candidate told us how principled they were, or how their principles guided their decisions.  Having principles is not restricted to the political class. Business leaders also have guiding principles. Henry Ford, an early example of business success, believed that a business’s goal was in serving people. “Money chasing is not a business,” he said.  His principles (see chart below) guided him to developing a company where the worker not only had a right to labor as a “moral fundament of life” but also shared in the business’s success.  
Ford's business principles from his book Today and Tomorrow published 1926
Confusion comes when we mistake values for principles. We tend to take for granted the statement that someone is a person of principles to mean that they share our values. We assume the business actions of someone we admire are based on our values or ones we would agree with without first asking what principles (rules of conduct) guided their decision process. This can lead us to admire not necessarily the wrong person, but the wrong actions for the wrong reasons.

Take our local business success, Rex Sinquefield.  His is the ultimate rags-to-riches story, a boy who grew up in the St. Vincent Orphanage who went on to create the first index funds which made him wildly wealthy. Because we live in America he is able to use that money to fund any group or individual that he chooses. We can look at St. Louis Biz Talk to see which groups his foundation funds and make some assumptions about what his principles and values are.  The problem is that we apply our own bias and values in making those assumptions, which has made Rex the subject of much public scorn as groups, who though they knew him as a Republican conservative, discovered him funding groups and causes with a notably more liberal bent.  Teach For America is one example.

The Sinquefield Foundation actively supports education reform. We can only guess at the reasons why the foundation has decided education is so important.  Sinquefield values the education he received at St. Vincent’s Orphanage and may credit it with putting him on the track to success. He says he wants great teachers in all classrooms and, given what he said in this video, we can probably safely assume that he believes the great teachers at St. Vincents are the reason for his success. He is a man whose principles tell him to back his values with hard cash and his Foundation’s website says he has a commitment to paying it forward so that others can have access to a great education regardless of their socio-economic background, just like he did.  This explains the more than half a million dollars a year and has donated to the Archdiocese’s Today and Tomorrow Foundation for many years. (Did Ford influence the name?)

But principles are professed rules of action or conduct.  You can value good teachers, but choose a host of different ways to get them. Sinquefield’s investing principles (who and what he chooses  to fund) are far more molded by his business experience than by his experience with the nuns of St. Vincent’s. You don’t get rich always betting on the underdog, though that may earn you a few extra points at the pearly gates.  A quick glance at the various organizations that The Sinquefield Foundation supports should be considered more as an investment strategy than a good housekeeping seal of conservative approval.

·       The Today and Tomorrow Educational Foundation (TTEF)
·       Children’s Education Alliance of Missouri (CEAM)
·       Voices for Children
·       St. Vincent Home for Children
·       Mizzou New Music Initiative
·       Teach for America
·       Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis
·       Special Learning Center

Keeping in mind that it is business principles which guide the foundation’s investments, and not just values, it is a little easier to explain why it supports something like the CEAM who in turn supports Common Core Standards. Good business investment requires the investor to follow market trends and place their money strategically to maximize their returns. It is no secret that education is the next market bubble. Common Core will not only fix a moving target in terms of what product to supply, but it will also provide an instant guaranteed consumer base from all the schools who will be forced to use it in Missouri (and 25 other states) because our State Board of Education and DESE have signed them up for it. If you are an investor, this makes Common Core a great investment.

The same principles explain an interest in Teach For America. TFA's business model requires them to select from the cream of the crop, recognized leaders at major colleges and universities, to find talent to put in public schools. But the model didn’t stop there. It was expected, and their own statistics prove out, that those leaders would then graduate out of the teaching side of the model and into the public policy side where those great minds will be hard at work influencing education policy.  Only governments have the power to grant monopolies (they cannot exist in a true free market) so if you want a monopoly you are going to have to influence the government.  Who better to do that than top secondary education graduate leaders who can also claim time in the classroom?

And here in lies the problem with people like Rex Sinquefield and Jeb Bush who pay lip service to free markets and competition as the best means to provide the optimal public education. Most of what they are promoting is the opposite of competition. Where is the competition in quality standards if there is only one group writing them for the whole country? Where is the competition in a great k-12 education if all public schools and charters are required to use these standards, and private schools are waylaid into them because they need to show parity between their program and the public one? Where is the competition if textbook publishing giant Pearson has a hand in writing the assessments and no other publisher sits at that table? Where is the global competition if, as the UN envisions, these academic standards become the global standard?  How do US graduates compete with workers from other countries who were taught the same things in the same way? 

Competition requires product differentiation. Where is the competition if every teacher is forced to teach the same process at the same time in order to meet the assessment targets? If every child is taught the same content and there is no room in the day (oops except for the 15% time rule for non CCS content) for teaching things that might give our students an advantage, or even programs developed for providing challenges to more advanced students, how will that make our students more globally competitive?

The answer to all of these questions is that Common Core won’t provide the promised competition, but it sure makes a heck of a good short term investment if you have the money.

That brings us to the principled dilemma of all the political candidates who have benefited from Mr. Sinquefield’s largess, especially the Republican ones in Missouri. How will their principles (rules of conduct) tell them to handle the party plank that says “As Republicans, we reject Jimmy Carter’s U.S. Department of Education and vow to eliminate the department. Also, we reject President Obama’s Race to the Top and Common Core Curriculum to establish a national curriculum,” a plank that was approved unanimously at the June Republican convention, if their benefactor favors Common Core?  This is rather a dilemma.

I suggest they go back to Mr. Sinquefield and make him demonstrate where there is competition in this model, and how this model will allow Missouri to differentiate our graduates so that they may be more globally competitive.  Ask him to provide proof that these standards are everything they claim to be; internationally benchmarked, tested and superior. Lastly, they should ask him if his conviction about the superiority of these standards is strong enough for him to fund the heavy price of their implementation so districts don’t have to place such a heavy burden on their tax base to implement an entirely new set of standards and assessments.  If we need to, as everyone says, better invest in education, who better to ask for investment advice than the inventor of the index fund?

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