My Panel Discussion at the Clinton Global Initiative University

Last weekend, I spoke on a panel on higher education at the Clinton Global Initiative University meeting, which was held at Arizona State University.

Secretary Hillary Clinton gave some opening remarks. I was joined by Bunker Roy, Founder and Director of the Barefoot College; Reeta Roy, President and Chief Executive Officer of the MasterCard Foundation; and Austin Obasohan, Duplin County Schools Superintendent.

Here’s the video of our conversation:



MSNBC Appearance on Student Loan Debt Crisis

On Saturday, I appeared on MSNBC to discuss the student loan debt crisis and why I’m not immediately going to college. Thanks for watching.

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The Nation Magazine: Why I Opted Out of APPR

This piece originally appeared in The Nation Magazine: Why I Opted Out of APPR

In February 2012, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, after a lengthy feud with the state teachers’ union, came to an agreement over a comprehensive teacher evaluation system for the state. The arrangement was made so that New York State would be eligible to receive $700 million of Race to the Top funds, a national sweepstakes spearheaded by President Obama that allocated monies to states that adopted his education policies.

Under the new system known as the Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR), 40 percent of a teacher’s evaluation would be based on standardized test scores, while the remaining 60 percent would be based on subjective measurements, like classroom observations and student surveys. Then, teachers would be sorted into four categories: ineffective, developing, effective or highly effective.

However, there’s one catch. In the bill, it states: “The new rating system would prohibit a teacher or principal who is rated ineffective in the objective measures of student growth from receiving a developing score overall.” In other words, if a teacher is unable to raise their students’ test scores for two consecutive years, even if he or she is deemed highly effective on the subjective measures, the teacher could be fired.

I recently graduated from Syosset High School. My district’s APPR plan was approved at the beginning of this school year. A month later, the Student Learning Objective (SLO) exams were unleashed on all the students in my school in every subject, including art, music, and physical education. Yes, in gym class, multiple choice exams with colorful green Scantrons were doled out. I wish I were kidding.

Teachers would administer the same exam at the beginning and at the end of the year. By means of value-added measurements and an obtuse formula, the teachers’ effectiveness would be determined. Moreover, in New York general state aid for schools is now tied to teacher evaluation, which puts further strain on the most impoverished communities in our state.

I cannot begin to describe some of the conversations I’ve had with educators, many of whom are veterans with decades of experience in this profession, who are feeling humiliated, demoralized and beaten down by this process.

I didn’t want anything to do with the tests, so I opted out of every single SLO exam. Each time, I put my name on the test booklet and Scantron and then handed the blank items back to my teacher. There were no consequences.

At the same time, a groundswell of opposition was growing. Two principals, Sean Feeney of the Wheatley School and Carol Burrris of South Side High School, took the lead and drafted a letter protesting the evaluation system. As of January 2013, 1,535 principals as well as 6,500 parents, educators, and students have signed onto the document.

If there’s one thing that is absolutely clear to me, it’s that Governor Andrew Cuomo has ignored the voices of students, teachers, principals, and parents who have grave concerns about the evaluations. He is frankly telling millions of students and teachers that their value is no more than a number in a spreadsheet.

What he’s forgotten is that evaluation is best done when the purpose is not to punish and reward teachers but to lend them support, to foster collaboration, to encourage self-evaluation, and to allow for rich and lengthy observations by principals and fellow colleagues.

So Governor Cuomo, tell it how it is. You can fire my teachers. You can close down my school. You can break up my community. You can kill the love of learning in children. But don’t tell me that it’s because you want the best for me. I’m not a stupid little kid. Do you hear me?

Tim Ferriss in The 4-Hour Chef on Learning


The science behind learning has always intrigued me. This afternoon, I finished reading through Tim Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Chef section on meta-learning. On Scribd, you can download the first seventy pages of the book.

Here are the most important points:

“Meta-Learning: META is where you’ll learn to mimic the world’s fastest learners.

Deconstruction: What are the minimal learnable units, the LEGO blocks, I should be starting with?

Selection: Which 20% of the blocks should I focus on for 80% or more of the outcome I want?

Sequencing: In what order should I learn the blocks?

Stakes: How do I set up stakes to create real consequences and guarantee I follow the program?”

On deconstruction: “Deconstruction is best thought of as exploration. This is where we throw a lot on the wall to see what sticks, where we flip things upside down and look at what the outliers are doing differently (and what they’re not doing at all). First and foremost, it is where we answer the question: how do I break this amorphous “skill” into small, manageable pieces?”

Learning Japanese: “There are 1,945 characters in the language, some with as many 15 strokes. But there are 214 radicals. They provide clues to both meaning and pronunciation, killing two birds with one stone. Radicals are also always written in one order: left to right and top to bottom. This all turns an impossible task—learning 1,945 characters—into one that some people can complete in less than two months.”

As you may remember conjugating verbs in school, it’s boring as hell. Ferriss writes: “By memorizing a few verbs in a few tenses, you get access to all verbs. It opens up the entire language in a matter of 1–2 weeks.”

On selection: “The lowest volume, the lowest frequency, the fewest changes that get us our desired result is what I label the minimal effective dose (MED). The 80/20 rule is Pareto’s Law is the principle or concept that you can get 80% of your desired outcomes from 20% of the activities or inputs can be applied everywhere in cooking.”

On sequencing: “The most world-famous black belts, often world-class athletes, teach a hodgepodge of random techniques. Daily classes are submissions du jour that leave students to assemble the puzzle themselves. Some succeed, but the vast majority fail. At the very least, students plateau for months or years at a time. There is no system, no clear progression. Dave had what other coaches didn’t: a logical sequence.”

On stakes: “If you were to sum up the last 50 years of behavioral psychology in two words, it would be: ‘logic fails.’”

“No matter how good a plan is, how thorough a book is, or how sincere our intentions, humans are horrible at self-discipline. No one is immune. The smartest, richest, and most dedicated people abandon commitments with disgusting regularity. 

Answer me this: would you work harder to earn $100 or avoid losing $100? The smiley optimist says the former, but if research from the Center for Experimental Social Science at New York University is any indication, fear of loss is the home-run winner.” [Emphasis mine]

Why We Need to Talk to Each Other More

M.I.T. Media Lab professor Alex (Sandy) Pentland has written an extraordinary book entitled Honest Signals. He argues that there are a number of unconscious, non-verbal cues that robustly predict a human’s future actions and behavior. Using a device called a sociometer, which looks like a small smartphone, Pentland and other researchers tracked these patterns of “honest signals,” such as “what tone of voice they use; whether they face one an- other; how much they gesture; how much they talk, listen, and interrupt; and even their levels of extro-version and empathy,” of various people in companies and universities.

Pentland writes, “In sales, negotiation, dating, hiring, and many other situations, the signaling associated with these social roles accurately predicts who will succeed, and who will not.” When pitching a business plan to venture capitalists, for instance, the dividing factor between ventures that get funded and those that don’t, is not what the entrepreneurs are saying, but how they are saying it. Quite the opposite of what you learned in school.

Our interactions with one another also provide some unlikely answers. According to the research, creative people, especially, thrive on face-to-face interaction and interact specifically with people in an “interconnected network.” More oscillation between centralized and interconnected patterns of communications yielded higher productivity, in an experiment in the marketing division of a German bank. Pentland says that we now know that 35% of the variation in a team’s performance can be accounted for simply by the number of face-to-face exchanges among team members. Successful people communicate more, talk more, listen more, act positive more often, and reach out to sources outside of their group more. In everyday society, we need to talk to each other on a regular basis. Jared Diamond, in his book The World Until Yesterday, recounts in his visits to traditional societies in New Guinea, that he couldn’t ever fall asleep, because nobody would ever end their conversations at night.

Mimicry, a signal emphasized in the book, is part of the learning process. In school, if adults mimicked empathy and trust, children will slowly adapt to these social cues unconsciously over time.

As sociometers become more readily available, organizations, businesses, companies, and everyday folk can begin to tweak their behaviors and interactions to be more productive.

GOOD Education: Students Need More Than Michelle Rhee’s Education Reforms

This originally appeared on GOOD Education: Students Need More Than Michelle Rhee’s Education Reforms.


“Principals were scared to death. If their test scores did not go up, they would be fired.” 

That was perhaps one of the most disturbing lines of Frontline’s “The Education of Michelle Rhee,” which aired Tuesday night on PBS. As chancellor of D.C. public schools, Rhee created an environment that to put it mildly, was hostile towards hundreds of educators. In the search for innovative ways to reform public education, America’s students need more than what Rhee is offering.

Rhee created an uncanny obsession over test scores, and thus massive cheating and manipulation emerged. Campbell’s Law, a statement created by the notable social scientist Donald T. Campbell, fits well here: “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures, and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”

In one class, according to USA Today, statisticians said that the “odds are better for winning the Powerball grand prize than having that many erasures by chance.” Plenty of cases of teachers erasing and correcting test booklets after school hours were reported, but, not surprisingly,never actually investigated

In her first year alone, Rhee closed 23 schools. A recent report found that these careless actions cost the city $40 million alone. Let’s fix schools, not close them. Instead of making education some kind of competition like Race to the Top has done, schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods—often the ones who are labeled “failing”—ought to be provided with extra funds to hire the best and brightest teachers or implement breakfast programs. Are we forgetting about Title I? 

In her three and a half year tenure, Rhee also fired roughly 1,000 educators, because many of them faired poorly in the IMPACT teacher evaluation system. There is an massive body of evidence that demonstrates that these value-added measures are inaccurate and misleading. One commentator wrote that “the odds of this system are more akin to flipping a coin.” It’s time to acknowledge that test scores are not a correct indicator in determining quality teachers. If students are producing work that is worth time and effort and has lasting value to their lives, then he or she is a great teacher. 

As Daniel Stufflebeam says, “The purpose of evaluation is to improve, not to prove.” Of course, every profession has their fair share of bad apples. Instead of threatening teachers, we should be giving more professional development and assistance to those struggling. If it comes to a point where the teacher simply cannot teach or is not willing to do so, then it would be sensible to fire him or her. But again, these are very rare circumstances.

School closings and teacher layoffs have had a tremendous effect on the lives of students across the nation. For many students in these communities, school is their only safe and secure place for a few hours each day. Dislocating them from their neighborhood schools into charters and privately managed ones not hurts them, but also derails the foundation of public education. 

What Rhee and so many policymakers don’t understand is that the goal of education is not to garner high test scores, but to cultivate lifelong learners and active citizens in our democracy. As a high school student and author, I want to be taught how to think and create and explore. I’m not a number in a spreadsheet; I’m a creative and motivated human being. I want my teachers to be paid well, given autonomy, and treated like professionals. I want my school to be adequately funded. Is that too much to ask? 

Let’s not forget to mention that Rhee’s ethical behavior and style of governing is a serious sign for concern. When she was working in Baltimore as part of Teach for America, she revealed that she once taped the mouths of her students shut because they were acting rowdy. As a result, according to Rhee, skin was peeling off of their lips. They were bleeding. And thirty-five children were crying. Are you serious? Any sane human being would agree that that incident is grounds for dismissal. 

Similarly, in her reign as chancellor, Rhee figuratively duct-taped the mouths of students and teachers shut. The last thing policymakers can do is ignore the stakeholders—the people who are in the classroom day in and day out: students and teachers. Once you purposely avoid and fail to value their input, you become a Machiavellian-like figure. Rhee fits that description with ease. When John Merrow called people for sources, he said “the number of people who said ‘no comment’ or hung up…was unbelievable”—a record number for his career.  

Currently, Rhee is running StudentsFirst, or as some like to say “StudentsLast,” because there don’t seem to be any K-12 students involved in the decision making process. By leaving her position as chancellor and not facing up to the cheating allegations, Rhee floated above the fray and walked away taller. I ask: Where’s the public outrage? Any journalist who lets Rhee slide without addressing this scandal is contributing to this high-stakes testing epidemic. 

Our students deserve more than this. I say call out her bluff and don’t drink the corporate reform Kool-Aid.


Once a week, I’ll be posting links to the best stories that I’ve read in politics, education,  and current affairs. Not sure how many weeks I can keep this up, but I’ll try my best.

1. Mark Weisbrot, in the Guardian, argues why Paul Krugman should be President Obama’s pick for US Treasury Secretary.

2. Annie Lowry, in the New York Timesoffers research from the Tax Policy Center that estimates that the top 1 percent will pay a rate of more than 36 percent this year, the highest since 1979.

3. Joe Hagen, in New York Magazine, recounts his experience on the National Review post-election cruise to the Cayman Islands.

4. Simon Romero, in the New York Times, documents the life of Uruguayan President Jose Mujica, a liberal world leader that “lives in a run-down house” and supports policies like same-sex marriage, increasing funds for renewable energy, and lowering poverty.

5. Scott Shane, in the New York Times, shares the life of John C. Kiriakou, a former CIA agent that will serve 30 months in prison for leaking classified information to a reporter.

6. Kevin Drum, in Mother Jones, explains that new research finds that lead is the hidden villain behind violent crime, lower IQs, and even the ADHD epidemic.

7. Danny Hayes, in the Washington Post, argues, drawing from research by three political scientists, that social identity theory — identifying with a political party — is “enough to generate unfavorable attitudes toward the other side.”

8. Andrew Goldman, in the New York Times Magazine, has an interview with former GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman — the secret hipster.

9. Emma Brown, in the Washington Post, writes that Washington D.C.’s public charter schools have expelled students at far higher rates than the city’s traditional public schools, based on an analysis of documents.

10. Ian Steadman, in Wired UK, explains that a study has concluded that a school’s design can influence a child’s development as much as 25 percent in a single school year.

11. Joe Klein, in TIME, argues the Chuck Hagel nomination for Defense Secretary will be a warm-up act for Obama’s foreign policy battle in his second term.

12. Matt Taibbi, in Rolling Stone, with colorful language, demonstrates that the Wall Street bailout of 2008 was “one of the biggest and elaborate falsehoods ever sold to the American people” and drastically damaged the U.S. economy and confidence.

13. Gary S. Becker and Kevin M. Murphy, in a Wall Street Journal Saturday Essay, explains that the war on drugs hasn’t worked and perhaps we should follow the lead of Portugal by decriminalizing all drug use and the drug market.

14. Nell Greenfieldboyce, in NPR, reports that, based on a new research, people can’t accurately predict how much their personality and values will change in the next decade.

15. Naomi Wolf, in the Guardian, reveals how Wall Street banks and federal agencies collaborated on cracking down Occupy movements together.

*Currently reading How to Change the World by David Bornstein.


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