Posts by Michael C. Russell

Public -Private Partnerships, the Pebble Mine, Propaganda, and Profits


As education systems struggle to keep meet internal commitments and international goals, many are turning towards the private sector for assistance. These public-private partnerships, or PPPs, are designed to address low levels of educational access and poor quality. Patrinos et al (2009) place PPPs on a continuum that stretches from private management of school systems to the private sector developing curriculum with state actors.

It is this last aspect of PPPs that I would like to focus on for this post, specifically the curriculum developed by Alaska Resource Education. This organization operates as a PPP connecting the oil & gas industry, the mining industry, and the Alaska Department of Education & Early Development. AK Resource Ed. came to my attention when I was researching the Pebble Partnership, a group devoted to mining in the Bristol Bay watershed. Located in the Lake and Peninsula census region, the proposed mine would be over two miles wide and require damns larger than the Three Gorges Dam in China to store waste chemicals associated with the project (Kelty & Kelty, 2011). The mine has met with mixed reactions from local citizens, with community schools acting as one source of information on the scope of the mine.

The Pebble Mine partnership is one of the groups funding and supporting AK Resource Ed., which provides curriculum and geology kits to schools, including those in the Lake and Peninsula School District. The K-8 curriculum is divided into three sections: energy, forestry, and mining. While the curriculum is linked to the Alaska state standards, the lessons themselves are sympathetic to the goals of the organization’s funders. For example, as early as first grade students are being shown the benefits of mining, but there is little discussion of environmental or social impacts.

In one fifth grade lesson students are asked to develop a cost-benefit analysis of a fictional mine on land near their school. Students are broken up into groups that include foresters, hydrologists, and topographers that study the natural features of the land. They perform their rudimentary study and then determine how the mine can best be developed in regard to the natural landscape. For example, hydrologists may decide if a stream on the property should be avoided, or if that water should be used in the refining process.

In fairness, not developing the mine is an option, but one the lesson shies away from throughout the provided materials. The focus of the lesson is designing a mine with minimal environmental impact. While environmental degradation is obviously an important consideration, the lesson fails to examine the cultural or social impacts of mine development. In addition, there is no discussion of involving stakeholders or local citizens in the decision to develop the mine. The decision rests only with the mock scientists that serve as outside experts, representing a strictly modernist view of resource management. I worry that this will condition students to believe they have no say in the development of their land. Shouldn’t we be teaching students to think critically about development issues, instead of training them to blindly trust so-called experts?

The lesson describe above is especially problematic when you consider that of the forty-one mining lessons supplied by AK Resource Education, this is the only lesson that makes any mention of ecological services or non-extraction values of land. All other lessons focus on the benefits of mining and how mining can provide resources and jobs for communities. While employment in rural Alaska is important, the environmental and cultural risks associated with open pit mining in Alaska are significant and need to be addressed in any discussion of mining in the classroom.

In reflecting the values of the organization’s funders, AK Resource Ed. is typical among PPPs (Ball, 2007). Rather than teaching students to become active participants in the management of local natural resources, this curriculum seems designed to provide eight years of pro-development propaganda. While PPPs can provide much needed funding and support for struggling schools, educators have to careful that they’re not providing private-sector firmswith a captive audience for advertising.

(For more on PPPs, Olga Mun discussed their use in Kazakhstan here)


Massive Open Online Revenue Generating Entities

the moocMassive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, are being widely championed as the future of higher education. These courses are provided over the web by private firms or non-profit organizations. The massive in the name refers to the course size, which can be in the tens of thousands. The open refers to the fact that anyone can sign up for a course. Currently there are three major providers, Coursera, EdX, and Udacity, and all are affiliated with prestigious national universities. Both Coursera and Udacity grew out of Stanford University, and EdX is a joint venture founded by Harvard and MIT. These platforms promise to offer “world class” courses taught by “superstar professors.”

As their popularity has grown, many people have started asking how MOOCs will make money in the long run. Coursera has one answer: charge for their end-of-course certifications. The new program is described by Inside Higher Ed here:

[Coursera] introduced a “Signature Track” to try to put more weight behind the end-of-course awards issued by universities that offer courses through its platform. Users who pay for this have to submit a photo ID of themselves to the company and are also tracked based on their “unique typing pattern” to ensure that people who take tests or turn in assignments are who they say they are. Prices are set around $50 so far.

The system appears to be working, this week Coursera announced that it is now generating revenue by charging for the credentials and through textbook sales.

Some say the firms are not motivated by profits. In a recent Chronicle of Higher Ed article, Kevin Carey argues that asking how MOOCs plan to make money is missing the point. He believes that MOOC courses are not meant to be profit centers for their universities, they are meant to be prestige generators:

Elite colleges are ultimately in the business of maximizing status, not revenue. Spending a lot of money on things that return a lot of status isn’t just feasible for these institutions—it’s their basic operating principle. It’s not hard to make money when you’re already wealthy—witness the performance of the Harvard Management Com
pany over the past 20 years. The difficult maneuver is converting money into status of the rarefied sort that elite institutions crave.

MOOCs offer that opportunity. Elite colleges are willing to run them at a loss forever, because of the good will—and thus status—they create. Free online courses whose quality matches their institutional reputation (a tall order, to be sure, but MOOC providers have strong incentives to get there) could ultimately become as important to institutional status as the traditional markers of exclusivity and scholarly prestige.

While an interesting idea, it seems as if Carey is the one missing the point. Stanford may not need a business plan, but Coursera does. Brown and Duke may be willing to run MOOC classes at a loss, but Coursera has taken on at least $16M in venture capital funds. Regardless of how the elite institutions feel about it, Coursera and Udacity have bills to pay. Charging for textbooks and credentials may be one way they choose to pay those bills. However, considering that Coursera only brought in $200,000 from 3.2 million users, one must wonder how the model will continue to evolve over time.

Educational Rankings and Economic Success: How Clear is the Connection?

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Following the release of the PISA 2009 scores, United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said:

The findings, I have to admit, show that the United States needs to urgently accelerate student learning to try to remain competitive in the knowledge economy of the 21st century. Americans need to wake up to this educational reality, instead of napping at the wheel while emerging competitors prepare their students for economic leadership.

Similarly, in this short video advocating for the Common Core Standards, the Hunt Institute makes reference to the U.S.’s PISA rankings and says:

Out students need better knowledge and tools to prepare them to compete in the global economy.

This is not a new argument, nor is it one restricted to the U.S. context. Advocates and detractors of education reform continually make reference to international competition, often using PISA and TIMSS rankings to bolster their argument. They draw an explicit link between these rankings and economic performance.

So, let’s take this argument at face value and test it on it’s own merit.

Using IMF data, here are the ten largest economies as measured by GDP PPP:

  1. United States
  2. China
  3. India
  4. Japan
  5. Germany
  6. Russia
  7. Brazil
  8. United Kingdom
  9. France
  10. Italy

Based on the arguments commonly heard from politicians, interest groups, and in the popular press, we may expect to see a significant overlap between this list and the 2009 PISA rankings. Here are the top ten performing nations and cities from that exam:

  1. Shanghai, China
  2. South Korea
  3. Finland
  4. Hong Kong
  5. Singapore
  6. Canada
  7. New Zealand
  8. Japan
  9. Australia
  10. The Netherlands

One nation appears on both lists: Japan.

Of course, one could argue that education is a lagging variable. That those educated today will not have meaningful participation in the global economy until years later. To test this, let’s look at the 1995 TIMSS 8th grade Math rankings:

  1. Singapore
  2. South Korea
  3. Japan
  4. Hong Kong
  5. Flanders (Belgium used disaggregated data)
  6. Czech Republic
  7. Slovakia
  8. Switzerland
  9. The Netherlands
  10. Slovenia

Again, only Japan appears on this list and the list of largest economies as determined by GDP PPP. Here one could argue that GDP PPP is a simplistic measure that fails to take population into account. As our final exercise, let’s look at GDP PPP per capita:

  1. Luxembourg
  2. Norway
  3. Qatar
  4. Switzerland
  5. Macao SAR, China
  6. Kuwait
  7. Australia
  8. Denmark
  9. Sweden
  10. Canada

This is even more problematic, not one nation (or region in the case of Macao) that ranked in the top ten in 1995 appears on the per capita list.

It should go without saying there are a number of problems with the simplistic analysis used in public policy debates.

For starters, although we often say “Nation so-and-so is ranked Xth in the world,” the reality is that the majority of the nations in the world don’t participate in TIMSS or PISA. Luxembourg, Qatar, and China did not take part in the 1995 TIMSS. We can hardly expect nations that didn’t take the test to appear on our top-performers list. In fact, only 43 nations in the world participated in that exam in 1995. That number has increased over the past eighteen years; sixty-four nations, cities and regions took the most recent PISA exam in 2012. However, we are still working with an incomplete dataset.

In addition, we’re not even using simple linear regression analysis in this blog post. We’re just comparing top-ten lists and looking for commonalities. Scholars studying comparative education know this is an invalid way on measuring the effect of education on economic growth. The link between a nation’s education system and its economy is a complex relationship between two adaptive, emergent systems. A relationship that can’t be measured by comparing GDP and PISA scores. We know this.

However, outside of the universities, think tanks, and multilateral development banks it is a different story. Politicians are not making complex arguments that take many variables into account. They are saying better rankings equals better a economy. President Obama:

It is an undeniable fact that countries who out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow.

The weaknesses in our argument above should serve to reveal the weakness in the president’s argument. Politicians define educational success with league tables and make ill-defined linkages to the nation’s economic rankings every day. Just by looking at the rankings it should be clear that this argument fails to hold up by its own logic.

UPDATE 03-09-13 0554AM – A reader asked why I said “nations” before the PISA rankings with Shanghai taking the top spot. I misspoke, that should have read “nations and cities” and has been fixed. This does point to another problem with the way the league tables are discussed in the popular discourse, as mixing up nation and city results is a common mistake. When the 2009 results were announced, many commentators reported that “China” had top the world rankings. Here’s Time Magazine:

China Beats Out Finland for Top Marks in Education