Ideas for re-inventing high school

In a number of my previous postings, I have argued for a re-invention of our educational system – especially the high schools. There are a lot of ideas about how to accomplish that task. A few are listed in recent article in the Christian Science Monitor “High school could be … better. But how?”:

Challenging curricula. In an attempt to undo tracking, many districts and states are implementing college-preparatory curricula for all their students. The Los Angeles Unified School District recently decided to make college-prep standard, and similar moves are afoot in Oklahoma, Indiana, Mississippi, and Delaware. But critics wonder if imposing a one-size-fits-all approach is the best solution.
Small schools. The idea of splintering large high schools into smaller learning communities has been evolving since the 1970s. However, it remained a fringe effort until it was championed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; its grants have been awarded to more than 1,500 schools in 42 states.
Early college. Some schools, like Bard High School Early College in New York, enable students to graduate with both a high school diploma and an associate of arts degree. In 2002, 57 percent of colleges and universities enrolled high school students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. College-level courses, like Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate, are also becoming more popular; 1.1 million students took AP exams last year.
Eliminating grade levels. Rather than having students earn credits to advance to the next grade level, under this system there would be no 9th, 10th, 11th, or 12th grades. Mastery of a subject would determine whether a student moved on to the next level. And students would retake only classes they failed, rather than repeat a grade. Boston Public Schools have explored this system.

The last of these really intrigues me. It is essentially a variation of the college system that focuses more on courses than grades. Grades may have been a good system for the mass-production industrial age. But a course-focus strikes me as much more appropriate for the information-age I-Cubed Economy.

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Jobs moving – to Canada

As Paul Krugman reported yesterday in this New York Times column “Toyota, Moving Northward”:

There has been fierce competition among states hoping to attract a new Toyota assembly plant. Several Southern states reportedly offered financial incentives worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
But last month Toyota decided to put the new plant, which will produce RAV4 mini-S.U.V.’s, in Ontario. Explaining why it passed up financial incentives to choose a U.S. location, the company cited the quality of Ontario’s work force.
What made Toyota so sensitive to labor quality issues? Maybe we should discount remarks from the president of the Toronto-based Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association, who claimed that the educational level in the Southern United States was so low that trainers for Japanese plants in Alabama had to use “pictorials” to teach some illiterate workers how to use high-tech equipment.
But there are other reports, some coming from state officials, that confirm his basic point: Japanese auto companies opening plants in the Southern U.S. have been unfavorably surprised by the work force’s poor level of training.
There’s some bitter irony here for Alabama’s governor. Just two years ago voters overwhelmingly rejected his plea for an increase in the state’s rock-bottom taxes on the affluent, so that he could afford to improve the state’s low-quality education system. Opponents of the tax hike convinced voters that it would cost the state jobs.
But education is only one reason Toyota chose Ontario. Canada’s other big selling point is its national health insurance system, which saves auto manufacturers large sums in benefit payments compared with their costs in the United States.

Funny, isn’t it? Pundits tell us that the welfare state is doomed by globalization, that programs like national health insurance have become unsustainable. But Canada’s universal health insurance system is handling international competition just fine. It’s our own system, which penalizes companies that treat their workers well, that’s in trouble.

Amen to that! We make much of the cliche “our employees are our greatest asset” – but we have a system that doesn’t allow us to practice what we preach. From outmoded regulations and accounting standards to outmoded management models, the system is lurching, not rolling, into the information age.

Multiculturalism, innovation and the fear factor

In the wake of the continued terrorism attacks and quagmire [oops – not supposed to use that word] in Iraqi, I am picking up an increasing backlash against multiculturalism due to the fear factor. The most recent example showed up in a subtle way in Joel Kotkin’s comment on the London attacks in Sunday’s Washington Post “City Of the Future”.
Last Tuesday, we had an interesting event with Richard Florida, who argues that multiculturalism and the openness of American society is our greatest economic advantage and one of the drivers of our innovation and creative economy. Besides including a gratuitous slap at Florida’s idea of the creative class, Kotkin’s piece takes direct aim at multiculturalism:

Now, cities may have to face a different menace. Sadly, many metropolitan leaders seem less than prepared to meet today’s current terrorist threat head-on, in part due to the trendy multiculturalism that now characterizes so many Western cities. Consider London’s multiculturalist Mayor Ken Livingstone, who last year actually welcomed a radical jihadist, Egyptian cleric Sheik Yusuf Qaradawi, to his city.
Multiculturalism and overly permissive immigration policies have also played a role here in North America. Unfettered in their own enclave, Muslim extremists in Brooklyn helped organize the first attack on the World Trade Center in the early 1990s. Lax Canadian refugee policies have allowed radical Islamists to find homes in places like Montreal and Toronto, where some might have planned attacks on this country, like the alleged 2000 plot to blow up Los Angeles International Airport.
In continental Europe, multiculturalism has been elevated to a kind of social dogma, exacerbating the separation between Muslim immigrants and the host society. For decades, immigrants have not been encouraged or expected to accept German, Dutch or British norms, nor have those societies made efforts to integrate the newcomers. Not surprisingly, jihadist agitation has flourished in Hamburg, Amsterdam, Madrid, Berlin and Paris as well as London.
If cities are to survive in Europe or elsewhere, they will need to face this latest threat to urban survival with something more than liberal platitudes, displays of pluck and willful determination. They will have to face up to the need for sometimes harsh measures, such as tighter immigration laws, preventive detention and widespread surveillance of suspected terrorists, to protect the urban future.

In other words, multiculturalism and openness (and the implied permissiveness of “others”) is one of the roots of our lack of security.
This is disturbing, especially coming from someone who years ago argued in The Third Century “that our entrepreneurial ‘open system’ and the human diversity of America as a unique ‘world nation’ ensures the long-term strength of our economy” and in 2000 in The New Geography, “midopolitan [older suburban areas] communities increasingly must draw their strength, as the great cities before them did, from the energies, skills, and cultural offerings of their increasingly diverse populations.”
I agree with Kotkin’s statement in the Post piece:

Militant anti-Western Islamist agitation — actively supportive of al Qaeda, for example — also must be rooted out; it can be no more tolerated in Western cities today than overt support for Nazism should have been during World War II.

But, at what point does this crackdown on overt support (which I agree we must do) spill over into a general roundup of “dangerous types”? I’m not suggesting that the backlash is approaching anything like what resulted in the Japanese internment camps of World War II. I am suggesting that we must be careful not to go over the cliff.
This is the other side of the danger that the terrorist poise – undermining our strength by installing a climate of fear and distrust. After all, isn’t that what “terror”-ism is all about. It is not about the number of people killed but the effect on the morale and psychology of the targets. Kotkin some what recognizes this when he says:

The kinds of policies needed to secure their safety may pose a serious dilemma for great cities that have been built upon the values of openness, freedom of movement, privacy, tolerance and due process. Yet to survive, these same cities may now need to shift their primary focus to protecting their people, their commerce and their future against those who seek to undermine and even, ultimately, destroy them.

Unfortunately, this sounds too much like the old story of “we had to destroy the village in order to save it.” Kotkin is arguing that we must shift away from all the things that have made great cities great in order to protect them. This is a lose-lose situation. Surely we can do better.
I would also take issue with Kotkin’s argument that the gospel of “multiculturalism” promotes isolation and separation.
One of the reasons why immigrants in many European countries have not accepted local Europeans norms is that they have been constantly reminded that they are not Europeans, that they are “immigrants.” For all the protestations of tolerance, there is still a gap between the locals (Europeans) and immigrants (non-Europeans). As Kotkin’s colleague at the New America Foundation, Peter Bergen points out, “many British Muslims are young and poorly integrated into society and therefore vulnerable to extremism.” Tolerance is not the same as welcoming and mixing. Done right, multiculturalism results in a shared community – not isolated enclaves.
On this subject, my hope stems from another story in Sunday’s Post (in fact, a front page story – “Finding the World in Loudoun County”) about how regular pick-up soccer game is uniting a diverse community in Northern Virginia:

The matches had been going on for a few years now. Self-conscious jokes about couscous, or gringos, or the Somali army had been told, beers shared, hellos exchanged in the aisles of the Food Lion. Mustafa had become Moose. The novelty of differences had largely worn off, in other words, leaving something more ordinary, perhaps, and yet no less significant to the people who live there.

Here seems to be an example of true multiculturalism at work. Someone should write another piece. Rather than “City of Fear” that is the true title of Kotkin’s piece, I would like to see more on the “City of Hope.” That would be the true “City of the Future.”

By the way, Kotkin – who is a respected commentator on urban affairs (see his new book, The City: A Global History) seems to have set himself up as the anti-Richard Florida. For an interesting background on the argument – see Christopher DeWolf’s excellent essay Creative Class War: The Debate over Richard Florida’s Ideas.
I must confess that I share some of Kotkin’s critique of Florida’s ideas — but had the same critique of Kotkin’s similar arguments when he made them in his 2000 book The New Geography.

Intellectual Capital for Communities

The World Bank hosted an interesting conference in June on Intellectual Capital for Communities in the Knowledge Economy: Nations, Regions and Cities:

Intangibles (intellectual capital) resources are now largely recognized as the most important sources of organizations’ competitive advantage. At the corporate level, intangible investments (R&D, innovation, knowledge creation and fertilization, marketing and advertising expenditures) are now unanimously considered as the most important determinants of performance. At the macroeconomic level, new growth theories have already demonstrated the importance of knowledge in the performance of nations.
Adding value in the knowledge economy is inextricably linked to radical change in both societal assumptions and business models. Allocating resources to education, health and social services and our community infrastructure should not be based on cost but on the potential for value creation through knowledge.
A new political leadership agenda is evolving around intellectual capital of nations and other communities, with the focus on:
* How to visualize the knowledge capital of nations;
* How to develop intelligence flows within and between knowledge capital clusters;
* How to cultivate efficiency and renewal of the knowledge capital of regions;
* How to capitalize on knowledge capital, by new innovative social systems, in terms of the collective wealth of nations;
* How to make cities “intelligent”.

Presentations from the following sessions are available on the website (see above):
   Intellectual Capital and the Knowledge Economy
   Intellectual Capital for Nations
   Intellectual Capital for Regions
   Looking at the Future, Research and Policy Agenda

Patently Silly

I just came across a wonderful blog that underscores why we need patent reform. Patently Silly – The Humor of Invention – presented by Daniel Wright. Here is an example:
Whipped Cocoa Bath
patent#: US 6753303
Heart Shaped Cheese Slice
patent#: US D491711
No these isn’t from the bad old day when the PTO was accused of letting anything go through — both patents were issued a year ago – June 22, 2004.
(note the blog also as a list of links to other, more serious patent law discussions)

Good news in education — and not so good

Earlier this month, the National Assessment of Educational Progress released its 2004 National Report Card. The report had some good news: Nine-year-olds scored higher in reading and mathematics on average in 2004 than in any previous assessment year. Thirteen-year-olds scored higher in mathematics on average in 2004 than in any previous assessment year. Scores for seventeen-year-olds, however, were about the same in reading in 2004 as in 1971. And the White-Black score gap was smaller in 2004 than in the first assessment year for all three ages, in both subjects.
The immediate reaction to the report was tinged in some controversy of interpretation as to the reason for the improvement. As the Christian Science Monitor reported in “US Report Card: Young readers make big gains”

The results come as President Bush faces a backlash from states and schools across the nation over the testing requirements of his signature No Child Left Behind law, which was signed in law in 2002 but doesn’t fully take effect until this fall. Administration officials and congressional supporters say these results show that, despite the furor, the effort is paying off for kids.
“Today’s Report Card is proof that No Child Left Behind is working – it is helping to raise the achievement of young students of every race and from every type of family background,” US Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said in a statement.
But the new results, from tests taken in 2004, largely reflect conditions that predate No Child Left Behind.

Event the indicators themselves are subject to controversy. The NCES website notes:

The results presented here are meant to describe some aspects of the condition and progress of education. They are best viewed as starting points for further examination, not as final statements on the quality or effectiveness of America’s educational system.

While the report is generally good news, to keep things in perspective, Bob Herbert’s New York Times column today
“Education’s Collateral Damage” takes the long view:

consider the following from the book “Dropouts in America: Confronting the Graduation Rate Crisis,” a collection of essays edited by Gary Orfield, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education:
“Nationally, only about two-thirds of all students – and only half of all blacks, Latinos and Native Americans – who enter ninth grade graduate with regular diplomas four years later.”
In much of the nation, especially in urban and rural areas, the picture is even more dismal. In New York City, just 18 percent of all students graduate with a Regents diploma, which is the diploma generally required for admission to a four-year college. Only 9.4 percent of African-American students get a Regents diploma.
Over all, the United States has one of the highest high school dropout rates in the industrialized world, which can’t be comforting news in the ferociously competitive environment of an increasingly globalized economy.

Clearly we have a long way to go. Good test scores are a step in the right direction – but only a step.

International fight over IPR

For all of us who haven’t been paying close attention (including me), there is a major international fight going at the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). I have been monitoring the issue only in a peripheral way – but thought it had come to a point where it needed to be commented upon.
The battle is often framed as the industrialized nations (owners of IP who want to protect their “property”) versus developing nations (users who want to be able to use that “property” — “steal” that property if you follow the harsh language of some). But, as Intellectual Property Watch blog point out, the conflict is subtler than just raw economic interests (although that undoubtedly plays a big part):

The dispute between the United States and Brazil shows the underlying disagreement in philosophies regarding the usefulness of intellectual property rights in promoting innovation and development.
A Brazilian delegate said that higher standards of intellectual property protection have not delivered benefits to developing countries, and that there has been widespread concern that new norms of protection may actually be inhibiting rather than facilitating transfer of technology.
Companies may use their government-granted monopoly rights to block countries from adapting these technologies to their own needs or to prevent competition, he added. These problems are exacerbated in environments where rules go beyond those agreed to in the 1994 World Trade Organization Agreement on Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). “The intellectual property system should be made to deliver on those objectives” to promote development, he said.
“I think the U.S. totally rejects anything that changes this organization’s modus operandi that helps developing countries,” a Brazilian delegate charged. “I hope I am not correct.”
The U.S. delegate assured Brazil that his government has expressed a “willingness to discuss” development issues and fully supports U.N. efforts. But he said the United States disagrees with the premises upon which Friends of Development proposal is based – that WIPO has not dealt with development issues, and that intellectual property rights have not been positive for innovation.
U.S. Rejects Access To Knowledge Treaty Proposal
Another area of contention between the United States and Brazil was a proposal put forward by Brazil for WIPO to negotiate an “access to knowledge” treaty. Brazil said there is a problem of the appropriation of publicly funded “basic science” and research by private companies which has the effect of removing the knowledge from the public domain.
Brazil’s delegate cited “worrisome” legislation in the United States that encourages the transfer of more research from universities to private sector, which he said would lead to more monopolies and less innovation.
The access to knowledge treaty, sometimes referred to as the A2K treaty, would ensure this information remains public, feeding science and research, Brazil said. WIPO must address this problem, he said, adding, “We believe an access to knowledge treaty is the real power tool that WIPO should pursue.”
The United States said it cannot support the proposal, and that it “strongly disagrees” with the principles underlying it and views it as “unnecessary.” Intellectual property has been a strong driver of innovation rather than an impediment, the U.S. said.
The European Union could be the wild-card in the debate, as the United Kingdom’s statement did not reject the access to knowledge treaty proposal, and said WIPO has a role in the debate.

This split mirrors the domestic US split between those who believe that strong intellectual property protection is necessary to provide the incentives for innovation and those who believe that overprotection stifles the free flow of information that is the foundation of innovation and thereby retards innovation. (See the summary of last month’s Athena Alliance briefing Is the US Patent System Endangering American Innovation?).
For those interested in monitoring the situation, I would recommend signing up for the Intellectual Property Watch email list or read their blog.