Review – The School Revolution

The School Revolution: A New Answer for Our Broken Education System

by Ron Paul, published 2013

I got a lot of ideas from this book, so it will be difficult to rate it poorly but ultimately I believe that is what it deserves. The book is repetitious, poorly organized and lacks flow, which is exacerbated by the suggestion to send emails to various “@aweber.com” email addresses for more information about the Ron Paul Curriculum– it’s almost like reading a poorly-done web marketing pitch page as a book.

Also, I am pretty confident this book was ghostwritten by Gary North. Gary North is one of the people behind the Ron Paul Curriculum, the RPC website looks identical in layout and voice to Gary North’s website (right down to the weird bursting red orb icon that displays in the title tab of each site on my browser) and the repetition and constant reference to “the principle of X is: italicized principle for effect“, which is a Gary North trade mark. That’s disappointing for two reasons: first, Ron Paul, if he’s actually written most of the other books of his I’ve read, is a decent author in his own right and certainly his way of making a point is unique, so it’s a shame to not really hear from him in a book with his byline; second, Gary North is actually a great writer himself (his Mises on Money is a great summary/intro of Mises’s voluminous writings on the subject, and his web essays on economic subjects are thoughtful and methodically argued) but it just doesn’t show up in this book, which makes him seem like a poor communicator because he is constantly repeating himself.

So that’s what’s primarily wrong with the book and that’s why it’s going to get a low score from me. But as I said, it gave me a lot of ideas, so I still felt the need to record my thoughts more extensively and what better place than this review?

Paul/North have not provided us with a well-researched book on the history of the “rise and decline” of the US public school system. Nor have they provided us with a careful logical demolition of the philosophy behind our current compulsory public education policy (or shown us its Prussian heritage, or how it is designed to serve special interests and not local communities), or investigated the collapse of urban school districts into chaos, violence and low test scores. They mostly take it as given that if you’re reading the book, you understand the public education system could be improved upon in one way or another and you’re sympathetic to cutting ties with it in the meantime.

This book is not a recipe or handbook for reforming or revolutionizing the educational system in this country as it stands. It offers no panacea for the system itself. Instead, it suggests something simple: go around it.

The author(s) believe that, much like UPS and FedEx carry the truly valuable mail while the USPS schleps around coupon books, catalogs and other junk mail marketing offers no one asked for or intended to receive, the advent of the Internet as an even-lower-cost mass communication medium will allow people who want to have a great education from a top-tier provider get one, and no local district admin or state bureaucrat or federal educational gestapo can say nay or get in the way, devil take the whole system.

And surely there is something to this. As the author(s) points out, Harvard, MIT, etc. have already put their imprimatur on the movement by giving free access to their best lecturers on the web. Coursera is one of many other providers competing to provide similar access at similar prices to not-quite-top-tier but pretty close lecturers and content, and then there is the Khan Academy which is seeking to address K-12. While quality, format and specific content may differ, what is similar about all of these services is that they are voluntarily provided and are competing for their audiences, whereas government schooling is a monopoly.

The other key piece of the puzzle is who is financing these education systems. With the government, it is tax-financed. You’d think this means tax payers thereby control the system, but that’s the funny thing about government and anyone who isn’t totally naive understands it doesn’t work like that– the tax payers donate, the government does the honors. With these other systems, investors, entrepreneurs and nominally-private (ie, the major research universities) teaching institutions are the financiers and, to the extent that the consumer is paying for it in some way (ads, prestige, subscription fees), they get to call the tune. Without changing the funding method of education, it will be impossible to change the values reflected in it nor the structure by which it is conducted.

There is no need to critique the argument too tightly here because I think it’s very sloppily made, even though it could be done in an airtight, holistic fashion. The point is simply that there are ways to get around the public education system if one wants to, and I want to, and utilizing free or low-cost curricula offered on the web is likely going to be part of the tool kit for me and many others. The point is to be the change and not wait for permission or for someone else to make a horrible monopoly better.

There are a lot of forceful ethical claims in the book that I think are worth noting:

  • As individuals mature, they must accept greater responsibility for their actions
  • If we want people to believe we are serious (about reforming the world), they must see the consistency in our own lives
  • The statist educators are committed to this principle: parents are not trained nor competent enough to make decisions about their children’s education
  • If parents understood that they are responsible for their children’s education in the same way that they are responsible for their feeding, housing and clothing, we would see far more attention given to the content and structure of educational programs

These are claims I agree with. I think it’s impossible to resolve these things with public education. So we are going to opt out.

One thing I wondered about was starting an alternative (privately funded) school. One problem revealed to me by this book is that in so far as it’s an “institution”, it’s going to get tangled up in a lot of the same problems that plague the public education system controlled by bureaucrats and regulators. Another problem (besides making the economics of it affordable) is that schools and lecture-based education cater to the least common denominator in the class (that is, the slowest student). The other students who are picking up the material quickly are left frustrated by the process. I was one of those students growing up, and it was miserable.

It may be that creating an alternative school is not a practical solution to the problem. It could also be that the alternative school would need to greatly rethink the method of schooling in general to be successful. One thing the author(s) suggest which is a novel idea for me is that the purpose of education is to promote the capability of self-learning. I say this is novel in that I have hovered around this belief for some time and even see it as core to my philosophy of parenting, summarized as follows: parents bring children into the world, without their permission, in a state of total dependence; the process of maturation and growth is a process of increasing independence; the parents’ obligation is to aid the child in the process of learning and self-discovery that will allow them to incrementally gain their complete independence; ideally, the parents’ could provide such an appealing moral example that they could also instill in their child the primary socialization value of interdependence, as well. Therefore, this idea of the purpose of a formal educational program aiming at teaching children how to learn whatever it is they want to learn, makes total sense to me.

If the early part of one’s education is centered on meta-learning (how to read and take in new information, how to think about it analytically, how to synthesize new information and understanding from it, and how to communicate it to others), then there is a point in the curriculum of the student where they can take the initiative in their learning and become self-guided and autodidactic. This principle dovetails with the idea of education as an act of self-discovery. Self-discovery can not occur when the self is incapable of thinking and learning on their own.

The book has some specific suggestions about important elements of such a curriculum:

  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Public speaking
  • Digital media
  • Academic research
  • Time management
  • Goal-setting
  • Job vs. calling
  • Study habits
  • Mathematics
  • Self-pacing
  • Tutorials

You can see quite clearly that this curriculum is aimed much more at the tools of self-learning, rather than specific values or content within categories like “Art, History, Science” etc. (although the author(s) does suggest that part of the advanced curriculum he offers for older students includes specific content tracks that explore these categories in integrated ways based on the student’s interest). So one idea I got from the book in this regard is that I need to do some research and thinking about the curriculum I will follow with my children, at least early on in their education, to try to best prepare them to become self-learners.

Another interesting idea for an improved school is as a gathering place for tutorial groups of exceptionally talented and motivated students to pursue a kind of “Socratic dialog” based study of a subject, or as a place to be introduced to new or important ideas. The author(s) suggest that the method of lecturing to students to teach them material is outmoded and ineffective (only 10% of the lecture is retained, on average, 3 weeks after it is received, and which 10% varies per pupil). But they suggest that lectures if short and interesting CAN be useful for informing people of a subject they didn’t know existed or for exciting an interest in the usefulness of studying a particular subject, which they could then engage in a course of self-directed learning on their own.

One way to think of how this might apply at an alternative school is that rather than fixed courses with fixed classes and the same teachers droning on, students might pay for individual intro lectures for subjects they’re considering studying, performer by visiting scholars or experts who are actively trying to promote the topic as worthy of study. The school might also have classes which apply a particular methodology for a particular purpose (ie, a Montessori seminar for young students). Finally, as suggested, the school might be a common forum for tutorial groups of excellent students to meet, discuss and coordinate study on a focused topic of inquiry.

There were specific things in the book I also really liked. The author(s) is a big proponent of essay writing as a way of practicing the understanding of specific content one is learning about. The suggestion was for the student to start a blog and write essays or blog posts about what they’re learning, not necessarily a journal but more as a kind of conversation or demonstration of what they think the meaning or import is of what they’ve learned. They also recommend the use of YouTube and other social media to practice these skills, practice conveying ideas, and to interact with others with similar interests. Their specific approach is based around creating “leadership”, which is another important value for me that gives me ideas about how I would want to approach this with my own kids.

I also like that the book emphasizes individuality and reminds the reader that every student is different and part of designing a good educational program means paying attention to their individual needs– again, not an idea that gets much attention in the public system, nor can it.

One thing I thought was bizarre about the book (and the values of most parents in general) is its suggestions on how to make the acquisition of a college degree by homeschooled children affordable and achievable in an accelerated fashion, ie, around age 18. Higher education is largely a scam that wastes time and money and leads to enormous confusion of values and purpose. If you could successfully help a child to gain mastery over their own learning at a young age and watch them develop their own interests and knowledge for an extended period of time, I don’t understand why college (either the acquisition of a degree, or the social experience itself) would be beneficial or interesting for them at that point. What can they get from college that they can’t get on their own pursuing a career, starting a business, etc.? That seemed like a sop suggestion to the parents reading who want to do something radical but aren’t ready to completely intellectually flip out.

With any luck, my children will be holding down part-time jobs and/or entrepreneurially making money WHILE they’re pursuing their youthful education. They’ll come to my business and see and learn what I do and be a part of it or do something else they fancy. There won’t be a sudden point at which they stop being a student and start being a self-paying adult; ideally, they’ll incrementally gain both capabilities at once and continuing their life immersed in self-directed learning, growth and productive gain.

This approach might not be right for everybody, but then, I don’t think public education is right for anybody, so you could certainly do worse.

Entrepreneurial Opportunity Cost

I am wondering out loud here: when people attempt to do some kind of modeling of the various opportunity costs of having government provide X, versus having “the market” provide X, do they factor in the opportunity cost of lost entrepreneurial progress inherent in bureaucratic provisioning?

For example, if someone was arguing that the government should control automobile production, is there any calculus attempted that examines the present value of foregone future improvements in automobile production and design that will inherently be included in bureaucratic provisioning?

A further example– the roads and highways we drive on, which have been provisioned by government for decades, haven’t changed all that much. But cars have made huge technological leaps in terms of how they’re designed and built. Cars have entrepreneurs behind them, roads and highways have bureaucrats behind them.

I’m not sure I am articulating my inquiry as coherently as I might like to but there it is nonetheless!

Gender Confusion On Government Forms

I went to my appointment to sign up for TSA Precheck yesterday. It’s not that I have tired of being groped, interrogated and cajoled by the goon squad when I “opt out” the few times I fly each year. It’s more that I enjoy paying $85 for a “service” which solves a problem that wouldn’t exist if the government wasn’t so intent on providing me with another “service”, first, TSA-controlled security.

To get approved for Precheck, you have to pass a background check. It seems like if the airlines were in control of their own security they’d already be doing this. I don’t know about you but if I ran an airline, for example, I wouldn’t want convicted felons or those who have spent time in a mental institutions (two questions on the self-administered portion of the process) being transported on my aircraft. That would seem to pose a safety hazard. But under the TSA and government security, they’re fair to fly, they just can’t speed through the security screening process at the airport. I guess they can’t hurt anyone without bringing guns, knives and bombs on board the planes?

Another field you have to fill out is, uh oh, “Gender”. I didn’t ask the clerk because I didn’t want to jeopardize my application processing by making light of a Really Serious Idea that’s currently popular, but I assume that the only options are “Male” and “Female.” The idea here is that whichever you choose should correspond to the background check records which will be referenced, which draw from government identity databases (Social Security/birth certificate, credit bureaus, etc.) Someone trying to steal someone’s identity would quickly be flagged if they put “Male” but were trying to get a Precheck number for someone registered as “Female.”

So what is a transgender person to do here? If they started out “Male” but at some point began to identify as “Female” and they insist this is their true identity, they’re going to fail their background check and not get issued a Precheck pass to avoid the TSA harassment procedure. Is that discrimination?

And if, to make sure things go smoothly, they admit they are still a “Male” despite identifying otherwise, is this oppression?

Thankfully, this isn’t a problem I had to deal with personally, but it did make me wonder! I wonder how long it’ll be before government forms reflect this “new reality”, and how much longer until the first terrorist takes advantage of this new loophole caused by gender confusion by assuming a fake identity in the ambiguity it creates?

Revealing Information From Customer Surveys

I currently manage a retail enterprise whose customers receive surveys from our product manufacturer in addition to the surveys we solicit from our customers for our own business management purposes. These surveys offer a revealing look into the mind and motivations of both our manufacturer partners and our customers.

First, our manufacturer. Our business is roughly divided into two key operating areas– sales, and service. The sales survey sent by the manufacturer has 6 numerical question categories, most of which are broken down into alphabetical sub-questions. In total the manufacturer is actually soliciting input from a sales customer on 23 (!) different questions, most of which are rated on a 1-10 scale while some are a binary “Yes/No”. The customer is of course invited to provide color commentary on these questions as they like, as well as on the survey overall. Similarly, the service survey has 8 numerical question categories but these are subdivided alphabetically so that the end result is 25 separate questions with 1-10 or “Yes/No” ratings.

The survey questions range across topics such as the timeliness and convenience of the business’s service, the friendliness and knowledgeability of staff, the subjective perception of the value given or fairness of charges, the perceived honesty of the process and people involved, etc., as well as the overall level of satisfaction and the willingness to recommend to others. Using a specific weighting formula (where some questions actually receive 0% weight, considered ancillary in nature, and others receive a relatively heavy weighting), the manufacturer arrives at a composite score on a 100 point scale (accurate within 1 decimal place) of the business’s overall “Customer Experience” index score. The bottom 2% of survey scores are thrown out at the end of each month and then the manufacturer provides bonus funds to the business if the composite score is above an arbitrary hurdle.

The national average for all related businesses in terms of both sales and service is ended up at four tenths of one percent above the hurdle for the year ended December 31st, 2015, and the hurdle is being moved up this year to one tenth of one percent above that!

The first interesting thing about all of this that I would note is the concept of false precision. The multiplicity of dimensions against which the business can be rated and the fractionality of the composite scoring system suggest an extremely precise, professionally-calculated measuring tool which itself suggests a customer experience that is almost scientifically specific in nature which, at end we would hope, reflects a consumer demographic that is nuanced, discerning and tasteful in character.

All three of these things are false. The measuring tool’s complexity is its own undoing in that customers rarely seem to understand what they’re rating or why (more on that below) and the surveys are sent out to the fraction of total customers who provide an e-mail at time of purchase, of which a still-smaller fraction actually bother to respond to the survey. Instead of measuring incremental behavior per thousand, for example, which might accurately capture meaningful changes in trend, the tool is instead measuring “fractions of a person’s experience” per tens in a given month in a given business… significantly meaningless specificity. The customer experience process is not as specific as the survey would suggest, many of the items being surveyed are accidents of history and essentially not controllable by the business without undue capital investment to change them. And finally, most of the customers are crude rubes who leave the business either gushing about how great it was, or pounding their keyboards in rage behind a Yelp review page trying to convince everyone that the business should be burnt to the ground and its employees mutilated on the public square in retribution for some minor slight or hiccup. There isn’t a middle ground and as far as the manufacturer’s scoring criteria is concerned, the middle ground isn’t valuable real estate anyway. As you will learn in a moment, there are entire categories of customers who don’t know or don’t care about many of the sub-questions on the survey which means the tool captures little more than their ignorance or angst.

The surveying system, both its conceptualization, construction and monetary reward system, betray a highly bureaucratic mind completely detached from both business reality and customer capability. The bureaucratic mind sees the world as a series of levers to be pulled, with no easy answers, simple solutions or “good enough” approaches. The bureaucratic mind seeks to measure everything, regardless of how valuable it is. The bureaucratic mind ignores the variability in quality and capability of human response (the customer) and tries to slice and dice a bunch of statistical averages rather than being merely curious about something resolute like “Were you completely satisfied? Why or why not?”

The fact that the survey system is tied to a monetary reward means there is a strong incentive for the business to find ways to game the system (coach customers — even if “illegal” — and input fake emails or remove them entirely when a bad survey is likely), especially as the manufacturer moves the hurdle ever closer to 100. The bar being set as high as it is (95) betrays both a kind of cluelessness concerning how simple it is for slight mishaps in the customer experience to bomb the score below that and an undue sense of ambition that a “truly great brand” would have nothing less than perfect scores. “If we just keep moving our standards up, our customers are bound to think more of us!” Meanwhile, setting a monetary reward above a hurdle turns the survey system into the equivalent of a binary “Were you/weren’t you satisfied overall?” despite the 20+ questions because anything less than the hurdle is essentially a penalty. And without a statistically significant sample size the manufacturer’s agents have no real place in advising the business’s management team about responses to perceived trends in the data.

So, what about the customers?

There is great confusion on the part of the customer about who he is responding to and what the consequence of his response will be. Many customers can’t differentiate in their mind between the manufacturer’s brand and the business’s brand, and a common lament when the latter of a pair of surveys sent from the couple is received is “I already filled out your survey!” Few customers who had a positive experience understand how important it is (for the economics of the business) that they register their complete satisfaction by completing the survey. And fewer still who had a negative experience understand that by completely bombing the survey they’re increasing the likelihood that their survey gets thrown out and therefore has no impact to the business whatsoever. These disgruntled customers also don’t understand that their individual complaints are read not by the manufacturer, who is only concerned with the statistical averages, but by the business they dealt with, as they are often filled with specific pleas to right some wrong or to put the business out of commission.

The way customers respond to the survey questions is also revealing.

Some customers reveal what angry, destructively vengeful people they are. They will rate the entire experience poorly (for example, rating a 0 for honesty of personnel) because one aspect of it wasn’t to their satisfaction (for example, the product wasn’t received in the condition expected, or they paid more than they would’ve liked, etc.) Or they will rate negatively and cite as their reason a small slight or problem they could’ve easily brought to the attention of the business and had resolved with little cost or inconvenience. This suggests a personality obsessed with power and control that is easily touched off and uses the “tattle” opportunity as a kind of political leverage to punish the perceived wrong-doer.

Other customers will rate the experience a 7 or 8 with comments about never rating 9 or 10 because “nobody is perfect.” These customers seek to use the survey to make grandiloquent philosophical statements about the state of metaphysical reality and can think of no better place to register their beliefs than on a business survey. Their comments are edifying, perhaps, but again completely useless from the point of view of the manufacturer and the business being held financially hostage.

Some customers are incompetent. They will rate the questions all 10s and then rate the final “overall satisfaction” question a 5. When contacted, they’ll express surprise or confusion and say that they “gave you a great survey”, not realizing that final 5 drops the overall score down to a 90% and thus a failing grade, if they can even explain why their “overall” score was inconsistent with the rest of the data they relayed about the specific parts of their experience (they usually can’t). Others will put negative color commentary and express unresolved problems but rate the sections of the survey highly. Others will write very positive comments, including a willingness to recommend to others, but then provide mediocre scores, especially on the willingness to recommend question.

Then you have the “deep thinkers.” They will get extremely granular on every question, providing a specific rationalization for each score given. Sometimes, when questions ask for similar information about a part of the experience, they will take the time to repeat themselves at length but using slightly different words. One gets the impression of a person who takes themselves and everything they do much, much too seriously. Undoubtedly hemming, hawwing and head-scratching were the prelude to the pages-long survey submission.

Everybody shows a bit of themselves and their values with a survey, both the survey maker and the survey taker. The particular survey world I inhabit leaves a lot to be desired in terms of making the survey a useful, honest tool for managing my business. At the very least, however, it provides a good chuckle now and then in reading an inane response or contemplating the unknowable mysteries of the workings of the manufacturer agent’s mind that thought a 20-some item questionnaire would provide invaluable insight into the customer experience. Ignoring the signal that profitability sends in a competitive market, I guess it’s still better than some I’ve heard about wherein the manufacturer’s scoring system revolves around customer responses to the prompt, “Can you imagine a world without [the manufacturer’s product]?”

That’s a real epistemological misfire right there!