Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Teachers Matter

A father visited his son's fourth –grade classroom in rural Wellington, Kansas and came away with a vivid description of what he saw from use of the new web-based curriculum developed by Facebook engineers. ”We’re allowing the computers to teach and the kids all looked like zombies,” the father told Nellie Bowles of  The New York Times in her April 21 article   “Silicon Valley Came to Kansas. It Didn’t Go Well”

The Silicon Valley in the article refers to an educational program called Summit Learning, now used in some 380 schools nationwide. Summit is funded by Facebook’s billionaire founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan through their philanthropic organization the Zuckerberg Chan Initiative, which has committed $99.1 million to Summit since 2016.  

School districts in the mostly rural areas outside Wichita, where schools are primarily small and underserved, adopted the free Summit system in 2018 in an effort to boost student performance. Using laptops, students individually access lesson plans and tests online, completing them at their own pace.  Teacher roles in the Summit system are to supervise and guide special projects.

But there are drawbacks to replacing the human touch of teachers with the flat screens of technology, as the Times reporter discovered.

Within a few months of the program launch, a rebellion grew among some user students and parents. The community concerns regarding Summit centered on the reduction of personal interactions in the classrooms: teachers with students and students with students. There were also complaints from students of headaches, hand cramps and increased anxiety from immersive use of the computers. There were some classroom walkouts, parents pulling children out of schools, and protests at school board meetings.  Home-made yard signs popped up such as “Don’t Plummet with Summit.” 

This is not the first time the generous Mark Zuckerberg has funded attempts to improve the public education system. In 2010, Zuckerberg announced with great fanfare on national TV, along with then Newark New Jersey Mayor Cory Booker and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a $100 million gift to create The Foundation for Newark’s Future to repair the Newark public school system, so broken it had been taken over by the state in 1995.The gift was subsequently matched by another $100 million from various philanthropies. 

After five years, as planned, the foundation closed down. Analyses of the completed project by various studies concluded the results of the massive investments were minimal. The 2015 book The Prize by Dale Russakoff, explores the project in depth. She writes that what was left behind afterwards was “as much rancor as reform.”  In 2018, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka analyzed the experience: “You just can’t cobble up a bunch of money and drop it in the middle of the street and say “this is going to fix everything.” You have to engage with communities that already exist – to parachute folks in, it becomes problematic.” 

It would seem the adoption of the Summit program in Kansas is an example of “parachuting in.”  And the subsequent reaction shows that engaging “existing communities” such as teachers and parents apparently was not a priority for the planners. The human factor is critical to successful children’s education and where that is diminished or even replaced by screens and technology it should not come as a surprise when there is some resistance from students, teachers and parents.

 Most people would name a teacher or two when asked who was important to their development into adulthood. I certainly would. A teacher who recognizes some spark in you, who can help unlock a hitherto hidden storeroom of interest and curiosity, can makes a huge difference.

But the “top down” approach, such as seen in Newark and Kansas, to remedying the public education system, especially in underserved schools, has its drawbacks.  Compare that to a “bottom up” approach such as the “School Turnaround” program that supports and mentors the principals and teachers who are on the front line.

I know that difference as I serve on the board of a nonprofit The Rensselaerville Institute, or TRI , whose School Turnaround program helps schools improve performance from the “bottom up.”

Under contract with school districts, TRI specialists  - all are former teachers and/or principals- work closely with principals and teachers in  low income population elementary schools   to finds ways to improve performance mainly in math and reading. Concurrently with, and in support of, School Turnaround, an auxiliary TRI activity called Community Sparkplugs encourages and funds adults near the schools to develop programs to engage students in nonacademic enterprises.

TRI is result-oriented and is judged accordingly by the contracting school districts. The ultimate beneficiary of TRI’s work with the teachers and principals is the child.

The TRI school and community engagements are focused and intense, and not easily replicated wholesale. But the concept of helping public education succeed by first supporting the teacher should be spread abroad widely.  The tech emphasis of Summit Learning in Kansas and the mega “top-down” approach in Newark downplayed teachers important role –except, ironically, in Newark where the Foundation spent millions buying out contracts of teachers judged to be underperforming.

Like any other enterprise, public education has its share of people who do their jobs poorly in classrooms or administrative offices. Performance can be improved with encouragement and support of those on the front line. Concentrate remedial efforts for public education on the people upon whom we depend to make the difference for our children- the teacher.  Parachutes and checkbooks can follow.  

We want our fourth graders arriving home through the front door smiling because a teacher had encouraged them or praised them or they had learned something new and cool. We don’t want them coming home looking like zombies.

Comments on this post or any of the others found in the archive to the left are welcome at: gplatt63@gmail.com

Thanks to those who comment on my posts in advance of publication especially to a very good copy editor my daughter Lucy Platt Weeks. She can found at lucyfplatt@gmail.com for those with editing needs.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Knee Jerking?

Every day it seems someone is publicly outraged about something. People channel their disapproval of an institution or person, dead or alive, into media campaigns to remove a name from a building, banish a statue from a public square, or fire those they declaim as responsible. There is no shortage of targets, reasonable or unreasonable.

Now, these so-called SJWs ("Social Justice Warriors") are coming for the museums. Specifically, they are taking aim at mega-donations that support major new projects and exhibits. The latest outrage campaign, against the family who made a fortune on the best known drug blamed for America’s opioid epidemic, has sparked new conversations about donation acceptance and recognition policies and how museums should balance gifts with potential controversies about their givers.

One purpose of these campaigns, aside from attainment of any specific objective, is public shaming.  Recent news articles have helped me understand this phenomenon. In the March 10th edition of The New York Times there is a piece by Salvatore Scibona entitled “The Industrial Revolution of Shame.” His thesis is that new technologies have made it possible to expansively make and distribute products. The particular product Scibona fixes on is “our judgment of one another.”  

The writer expands: “ Media culture has found a sweet spot in the collective psyche – outrage.”  To which he adds: “Technology has so multiplied the outrages confronting us that they crowd out our ability to discuss much else.”  These perceptions allow me to examine one particular shaming campaign in a field with which I am familiar – museums.

Prominent photographer and activist Nan Goldin and her advocacy organization P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) has embarked on a campaign against museums that have benefited from donations  from the Sackler family who, in return , have had galleries, buildings and programs named after them. The Sackler family founded Purdue Pharma, the maker of the addictive drug OxyContin, which is largely blamed for the horrendous opioid epidemic that has resulted in the loss of thousands of lives across the nation. Since the drug was introduced in 1996, sales have generated $35 billion for Purdue and $4 billion for the Sackler family, members of which still make up the majority of the Pharma board of directors.

The museums targeted by Ms. Goldin, on social media and by dramatic demonstrations on site, include New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where there is a Sackler Wing and The Guggenheim, whose education department bears the Sackler name. The art museums at Harvard are also on P.A.I.N.’s target list. P.A.I.N.  demands that the Sackler name be stripped from the museums and for Pharma to fund programs combating the opioid epidemic. 

Prominent among the family’s museum naming and another campaign target is the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian in Washington DC.  Along with its neighbor The Freer Gallery of Art, it comprises the Smithsonian’s national museum of Asian art. The Sackler Gallery was founded in 1987 and named in honor of Arthur Sackler, whose foundation donated his superb collection of Asian art along with funds to establish the institution.

Arthur Sackler’s daughter Elizabeth has been vigorous in pointing out that a) Arthur Sackler died in 1990, six years before the invention of OxyContin, and b) his brothers Raymond and Mortimer bought out his share in Purdue shortly after his death. Yes, Arthur was a Sackler and yes, he was one of the founders of Purdue but he had no connection with OxyContin. So what is the rationale for demanding the removal of his name from the Gallery at the Smithsonian, which has stated it has never removed a name from a museum and has no intention of doing so in this instance? 

A statement by Dominic Esposito, a sculptor associated with P.A.I.N. provides an answer. He said “Sackler has gone from a legacy of arts and culture philanthropy to (one of) death and destruction.” Clearly that transition is the intent of the campaign, if not the clear result at present.  It is a public shaming effort designed to obscure the extended Sackler family‘s generosity to museums, hospitals and universities going back decades and to punish the family for its profitable association with OxyContin.

The likelihood of names being removed from structures or professorships is marginal, as there are contractual issues. The same would apply to return of funds. In the Smithsonian example, taking it to an absurd conclusion, I suppose there might be an asterisk placed next to Arthur Sackler’s name, much like how  Major League baseball record holders suspected of performance drug enhancement are listed:  "* Sackler Gallery not directly connected to Oxy-Contin."

The campaign appears to be having its effect. Recently The Tate Gallery Group and the National Portrait Gallery, both prominent British museums with long associations with the Sackler family, announced they would no longer seek or accept donations from the Mortimer and Raymond Sackler branch of the family. Sackler gifts to Tate have amounted to about $5.3 million over the years. The Portrait Gallery has suspended a planned $1.3 million donation from the Sackler Trust. Significantly the Tate group stated: “We do not intend to remove references to (the Sackler) historical philanthropy. “
Meanwhile in New York City, the Guggenheim announced on March 21 it would also no longer accept gifts from the Sackler family, who donated $9 million to the museum between 1995 and 2015. The museum added it has no plans to change the name of the Sackler Center for Arts Education, as the designation was made by contract. 

Purdue Pharma , still largely owned by members of the Sackler family, is facing some 1600 lawsuits over the purported  connection of OxyContin to the opioid crisis. It is reportedly considering filing for bankruptcy to protect the company while litigation drags on. On March 25th, Purdue settled, out of court, a claim by the state of Oklahoma for $270 million. Notably a large portion of the money will go to funding  an addiction and treatment center at Oklahoma State University.

P.A.I.N. asserts that the Sackler philanthropy was purposely designed by the family to mask the “blood money” derived from the sale of opioid drugs. But as several museums have pointed out, much of the philanthropy, and the family tradition connected with it, predates the sale of OxyContin.  But this is too fine a point for the P.A.I.N and it would dilute its objective: to besmirch the Sackler name and by association institutions that have accepted the family’s money. 

The museums that so far have decided to cease accepting Sackler philanthropy are bowing to negative publicity at the expense of any public benefit the uses of those gifts might have produced. While I don’t think It does any  good to second guess such  judgment  calls,  I do agree that the ex post facto removal of the Sackler name serves no purpose except the public shaming one. That outcome is already on its way to some success, given the recent actions by the Guggenheim and two British museums.

Finding positive aspects to this tragic situation is worth the effort.  The Sackler family is increasing its funding of opioid addiction treatment programs. And conversations are underway in the charitable sector over the balance between “mega” gifts and their sources. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art for instance is reviewing its donation acceptance policies). The public scrutiny of the relationship, by the way, is not new.  In the Gilded Age, the gifts of Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller were called into question citing their history of union-busting and ruthless monopolistic practices.  Yet their names today are in in the philanthropy Parthenon
As for the general public I would urge resisting the common “knee jerk” reaction to public outrage issues. I have often wondered how much electricity could be generated if somehow the knees of America were attached to a generating source.  Salvatore Scibona in his article in The New York Times suggests that rather than sitting in judgment, the observer should become more of a witness to allow a calmer opportunity for formation of a balanced moral response.  That way shaming is not the objective but rather working towards deeper solutions to the crisis itself –in this case  the devastation the opioid crisis has wrought on thousands of families and its effect on our national sense of self-worth.

Comments on this and any other blog post found in the archive (viewed to the left) are welcome at gplatt63@gmail.com.  And Happy Diamond Anniversary! This is my 75th posting since I started the blog eight years ago.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Plutocratic Housing

Recently billionaire hedge fund manager Kenneth C. Griffin set, as The New York Times (January 24 2018) put it: “ a new standard for conspicuous consumption by paying a fortune for an unfinishedpiece of property in the sky.”  The fortune: $238 million (later adjusted at closing January 23rd to $239.958 million), the unfinished property: a 24,000 square foot penthouse at 220 Central Park South in New York City. The transaction is the most expensive residential sale in U.S. history. 
It’s not as if Mr.  Griffin lacks for housing. 

He already has a penthouse in Miami ($60 million) and a mansion in London ($122 million). He is based in Chicago where last summer he paid $58.5 million for a the top four floors of a building in the affluent “Gold Coast” neighborhood, in addition to the four other houses he owns in the city. He collects real estate as ordinary mortals collect stamps or bottle caps.

Mr. Griffin who has net worth of  $10 billion has been philanthropic, reportedly donating to date $700 million.  Beneficiaries of his generosity include universities – his alma mater Harvard got $150 million in 2014 – and museums – The Museum of Modern Art received $40 million. However he has declined to sign the “Giving Pledge” organized by Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett where 150 billionaire signees so far have pledged to give away a majority of their wealth to charity.

Speaking of Mr. Buffett, the contrasts between this legendary investor and Griffin are striking, especially in the life style category. Buffett, whose net worth is estimated at $85.6 billion, continues to live in the same house in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska  that he bought in 1958 for $31,500. He does have a house in California valued at $4 million (doghouse scale for Griffin) and reluctantly purchased a private jet he nicknamed “The Indefensible” for his corporation. He is 88 years old after all. So far he has donated $35 billion, much of it to the Gates Foundation.

A follow-up article in The New York Times of January 26 offers another contrast, generational and sociological. Brooke Astor (1902-2007), the New York socialite and philanthropist, was content to live in a 5000 square foot Park Avenue apartment. Her wealth, peanuts compared to Griffin’s, was inherited. David Rockefeller ( 1915-2017) and his wife Peggy’s  65th Street town house was 10,000 square feet , but it was their primary residence where they raised their six children. I would venture to say that the real estate activities of Mr. Griffin would be viewed as distasteful to these old money philanthropists. Their personal acquisitions tended more to art and country estates.

This current period of vast wealth, with its yawning societal income gap, has been termed “The New Gilded Age.” Certainly the Vanderbilts and Carnegies liked their real estate too. The 54 room Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde Park NY, now a National Historic Site, was only lived in a few weeks a year by its owners Frederick Vanderbilt, and his wife Louise.  It was built in the late 1890s when, it must be emphasized, there was no income tax, which was not made law until 1913. Today the top marginal income tax rate is 37 percent, whereas between 1945 and 1980, during prime Astor and Rockefeller time, it was between 70 and 80 percent.

With the additional tax cuts promoted by President Trump, along with the assault on the Estate Tax (renamed the “Death Tax” by repeal adherents),  rates on the very rich may well drop even further.  So there will be even more cash for the billionaire to spend, some perhaps on philanthropy but also on “toys,” such as the $100 million + yacht complete with a certified Imax Theater recently purchased by Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder. Perhaps on board he will enjoy big screen replays of his football team’s dismal 7-9 season record in 2018.

Let me end this post with uplift, for as you have read I am not a fan of conspicuous consumption. If you are with me on this, this story from The Chronicle of Philanthropy may provide an antidote.
George Ellis, a small town doctor in the Midwest never forgot his time during the period of WW2 earning his M.D. at the University of Buffalo (UB ) School of Medicine.  After the war he moved to rural Indiana where with his wife as nurse set up a practice in his aunt’s house. He practiced medicine there for years, keeping in touch with the UB Medical School, attending reunions and striking up a friendship with the school’s vice president for advancement David Draper. Over the years, Draper visited Ellis in Indiana 50 times where they discussed how “Doc” Ellis might achieve his wish to help his beloved alma mater.

The Ellis couple was childless and lived simply in a two bedroom ranch house. They drove Buicks and Oldsmobiles. He drank bourbon (Buffalo Trace, of course) from a coffee mug.  When he wasn’t tending to patients the doctor spent time at the public library teaching himself about the stock market, researching and investing, with a small inheritance from his father as a starting point.  Along the way he set up charitable trusts. All the time his aim was UB Medical School and UB knew that.  But no one in his small city had a clue of his wealth.  He died age 87 in 2010.

In 2011 UB announced the receipt of an endowment of $40 million, established by a donor (Dr. Ellis) who wished to remain anonymous .His instructions were that his identity as the donor could only be made known after his wife’s death.  By the time his estate was settled in 2013 the donation had grown to $45 million. His wife died in 2018 whereupon the three trusts Ellis had established years before yielded another $11.8 million. The gift from Dr. Ellis to UB Medical ended up totaling $56.8 million.

I have told similar stories over the years I have been writing these blogs.  They were about quiet philanthropists unknown during their lifetimes, living simple lives, but driven by the need to help places or institutions they loved.  

There ought to be a Hall of Fame built dedicated to them. Perhaps it could even have an IMAX theatre to tell their stories.  The only thing conspicuous about them was the purity of their generosity and they should be honored.

The definition of the word philanthropy bears repeating. The Greek root, philanthropia, means love of man.  Philanthropy is the act of desiring to help humanity and is most often associated with providing financial support. I wish I could coin a word for the love of collecting real estate (suggestions anyone?). I further wish those who have that unnamed condition cure the urges by redirecting more of their vast resources to helping others.  Think of what the $238 million spent on the penthouse in the sky could do for those in need who live on the streets below?

Comments on this and previous posts (see archive to the left) are always welcome at gplatt63@gmail.com