Monday, December 23, 2013

Innovation And Creativity

Believe it or not, there was a time when Microsoft was an innovative technology company. It was the early 1980's and Bill Gates' and Paul Allens' exciting start-up was everyone's darling. They were succeeding in their mission of putting a mirocomputer on every desk, everyone in business wanted to be like them, and their initial public offering was the talk of the town. Those were the days when Microsoft changed the world.

Now, not so much. Today, no one thinks of Microsoft as a place of innovation or creativity. Even back then, people who worked there would quietly tell you that the competition had superior technology, but that Microsoft's "genius" was its market share, which they attained by cut-throat business practices. 

Today, everything they touch turns to crap. Of the few people I know who still run Microsoft's operating systems on their home computers, most are using older versions because the newest ones are buggy, unreliable messes. Oh sure, Microsoft still makes money, but not nearly as much, and it isn't because they deliver high quality products or create great customer satisfaction: they do it by being a giant, bureaucratic, monopolistic enterprise, that "wins" through market dominance, either buying or burying the competition. Yes, it's a business model, but not one anyone wants to emulate any longer. Yes, they employ a lot of people; as dispirited and cynical a bunch of sad sacks as you'll find anywhere. If Microsoft was actually subject to a true market economy we would all be stepping back to get a view of the impact the giant makes when it finally falls to the ground. But since our economic policies (brought to us in no small measure by Microsoft's relentless political lobbying) are designed to prop up these giants, Microsoft is now a sluggish, flabby, process-bogged weight around the neck of American industry: a clot in the veins of innovation and creativity.

Gates is no longer involved in the day-to-day operations of the company he founded, and to his credit, is keeping a promise he made in his 30's, by committing billions to philanthropic endeavors like public health, fighting poverty, and education reform. Unfortunately, as most powerful people do, he obviously lives in a bubble, surrounded by hand-selected sycophants, who don't or can't tell the truth when the "boy genius" has one of his bright ideas. Or rather, when he recycles his old ones, like his idea that what American education needs is a dose of Microsoft's medicine.

For those of you who don't know, Gates is the leader in the corporate-backed push to "reform" education by making it more like Microsoft. He is the spokesperson for those who are pushing for more high stakes standardized testing and curricula, larger classes, de-professionalized teachers, wholesale privatization of public schools, and a host of other reforms based on the lessons he supposedly "learned" in his life building the behemoth that only a money grubber could love. He has no evidence or data or research to support this approach. Indeed, most professional educators tell him he is wrong, but he doesn't listen to educators, because, I guess, we're just self-interested union thugs who can't possibly know what it takes to brutally dominate a marketplace.

One of his big ideas, in fact, is to fire a lot of teachers, the way he fires a lot of people at Microsoft. And the way he's going to do this is by using a method called "stacked ranking," a model that the Obama administration has adopted by withholding Race To The Top federal funds from states that don't employ it. The basic idea is that employees are ranked by a statistical model, requiring that a certain percentage be given bonuses, while another pre-determined percentage be fired. It's the kind of misanthropic idea that business people come up with, based upon the idea that there are always lazy slobs in any group, with no credence given to things like teamwork, cooperation, growth, improvement. It's all about ranking and firing with a kind of doomsday efficiency.

This idea is at the heart of the corporate "reform" drive to put high stakes standardized testing at the core of our educational system, and this is how teachers are being rewarded and fired right across the country. Forget about the well-documented problems with these tests which focus almost exclusively on math and literacy, ignoring most of what a high quality education is all about. Forget that even the test creators warn that their tests should not be used to evaluate teachers. Forget that children are increasingly spending their days in memorizing test answers, rather than learning to think. Forget that these tests are a much better measure of the socio-economic background than of student knowledge or a teacher's ability. All that matters is the creation of data because stacked ranking needs standardized testing to create data points that can be used to get teachers competing against each other.

So Gates has succeeded in pitting state against state, school district against school district, teacher against teacher, and student against student. Then this:

And now, just as public school systems have widely adopted the Microsoft model in order to win the Race to the Top, it turns out that Microsoft now realizes that this model has pushed Microsoft itself into a Race to the Bottom . . . In a widely circulated 2012 article in Vanity Fair, award-winning reporter Kurt Eichenwald concluded that stacked ranking effectively crippled Microsoft's ability to innovate. "Every current and former Microsoft employee I interviewed -- every one -- cited stacked ranking as the most destructive process inside of Microsoft, something that drove out untold number of employees . . . It leads to employees focusing on competing with each other rather than competing with other companies" . . . This month Microsoft abandoned the hated system.

Thanks for nothing, Gates. Of course, we told him that teaching is a collaborative, cooperative process; that it takes teamwork, that experience matters. We warned him that while competition might be a good way to turn a profit, it's a terrible way to deliver anything that can't be measured in cold hard cash. But since no one inside of his bubble was willing or able to tell him the truth, he instead decided to label us his "enemies," which is, after all, the way business guys traditionally view their competition. No one thrives in a world full of enemies, but that's the world of education that the boy genius has forced upon us. It has now taken Microsoft a decade to figure out what those of us in education have known all along: innovation and creativity come from cooperation, not competition. 

Of course, it makes me wonder if innovation and creativity is really something guys like Gates care about when it comes to education. After all, critical thinking isn't really going to be a valuable skill in the work place they envision for tomorrow. I mean, take a look at the kinds of charter schools the Gates Foundation supports. For instance, there's Rocketship, a Silicon Valley school in which non-certified instructors making $15 per hour oversee classrooms of 130 or more, sitting in cubicles staring into computer screens, learning to do the kind of work that will prepare them to fill the sort of mind-numbing, soul-sucking jobs increasingly found in corporate offices, like those of Microsoft. But, of course, it could be worse, at least these kids have desks, unlike students who attend the charter schools of the nation's largest corporate chain, KIPP, where their spirits are broken by being forced to sit on the floor in rooms crammed with up to 100 kids. This is all part and parcel of the Microsoft model of education, one that even Microsoft now rejects.

It's not just Bill Gates, of course, but he's their leader. US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is his mini-me, even going so far as to identify his enemies as "white suburban moms," patronizingly characterizing legitimate, thoughtful opposition to the corporate reform agenda, as emotional, petty, and selfish. They insist that they are data driven, candid, and pragmatic, yet even a cursory examination leads to the conclusion that their approach is supported by nothing but emotion and ideology, and a self-fulling, dystopic vision of our children's future as drones in cubicles.

The evidence and experience is on the side of teamwork and cooperation, something even the corporate blob called Microsoft has come around to realizing. But the boy wonder can't hear it because he's so obsessed with fighting enemies. The only reason anyone listens to him is because he has money, which is a poor replacement for innovation and creativity.

And for those who question my standing to write about business, I only ask that you also question Bill Gates' standing to speak about education. I'd be happy to have him as a teammate because I'm sure he has some great things to bring to the table. I'd happily work shoulder-to-shoulder with him, but he's going to need to step outside of his bubble in which he is the boy genius, roll up his sleeves, and return to the man he was in Microsoft's glory days when innovation and creativity were actually happening.

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