About this site

I was a Governing Board Member of the San Carlos School District, elected November 2007 and again in November 2011. This site was originally used for the purpose of communicating with school district constituents, however now it is used for surfacing ideas and expressing opinions on various subjects in education, politics, business, or otherwise.

Please note that any opinion express here is purely personal and does not necessarily reflect the position or opinion of anyone else or any organization with which I am, or have been, associated.

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All Business Experiences are not Created Equal…Certainly not for Future Presidents

The track record of businesspeople going into national political service is a mixed one at best. Our only president with an MBA, George W. Bush, reportedly had a difficult time managing the complexities of the office, and many of the other presidents with business backgrounds – such as Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman, and Jimmy Carter – also represent a mixed bag. It’s interesting to note that the most successful of this group, Harry Truman, was actually a bit of a failure as a businessman. Presidents of the United States tend to be lawyers or career politicians – why is this?

Clearly a lot of it has to do with the fundamental differences between business and government – structural and contextual distinctions that are often severely underappreciated by both political candidates and the public. Others have made these same observations, particularly for Presidents (see these articles from The Hill and Forbes).

Interestingly, current and former businesspeople are often more successful in state and local political offices. It’s possible this is due to less “political baggage” in these offices, including the smaller role of interest groups, the lesser influence of money, and other related factors. Particularly at the local level, elected officials are freed from much of the political dynamic because they often don’t have a desire to seek higher office.

More importantly, the type of business experience a person has plays a big role in how transferrable business success is to the political world. Even among most businesspeople who have sought and/or earned high political office, our current president is a special case. Despite the historically mixed track record of businesspeople in the White House, it’s no doubt that he was elected at least in part due to his perceived success in business. But regardless of one’s opinion on his political viewpoints, temperament, morality, or actual business success, it’s important to understand that Donald Trump wasn’t a businessman in the typical sense – the CEO of a large, public corporation – but rather the head of a private “family business” (albeit a large one).

This is a critical distinction because a family business is even more different from government than a typical shareholder-owned corporation is. Family businesses run in a much less complex environment. In the case of Donald Trump, he was the boss and made all of the decisions. He didn’t have to deal with any checks and balances, other than of course the scorecard of making a profit (which every business faces). Family business owners have no independent Board of Directors (if they have one at all); they have few, if any, other shareholders, and they are not even subject to public disclosure requirements. The entire business is essentially a closed book effectively run by one person, a person who is the “king” of that business. This is not to suggest that this is a bad model. Many American companies are “family businesses,” including my current one. But having a lifetime of experience in running your own show makes you even less qualified for politics, particularly national politics, than the historical collection of businesspeople-turned-politicians.

With Donald’s Trump narcissistic personality (which was no doubt only amplified by five decades of being the king of his own business), it’s not surprising he takes a “my way or the highway” attitude toward every task and every negotiation. But this approach tends not to work in government because the role is deliberately limited by design. Despite how much “power” the President (or any particular official) nominally has, politics is really a team sport. A President’s ability to get things done is predicated upon consensus and coalition building while of having billions of eyes on your every move.

The team dynamic of a family-owned business is also completely distinct from that of government. Employees of a family business are probably working there, in part, because they want to work for the owner. However, with the exception of top political appointees, most government employees are there for a different purpose and are often unmoved by the political philosophy of the person at the top (many stay through multiple administrations of different political parties). In choosing to often accept lower pay than they could make in the private sector, government employees are often there because they believe in the mission of their particular organization, its principles, and the relevant law. The recent examples of U.S. Parks employees’ standing up for their beliefs is a perfect example of how managing government employees is entirely different than managing those in the private sector (and particularly those in a family business). Even the attorneys in the Justice Department don’t really “work for” the President like a private attorney works for his/her boss. They are required to uphold the law and the Constitution, which can, at times, obligate them to oppose to their boss’ wishes.

However successful Donald Trump’s business career may have been, little in it would have caused him to understand this dynamic. Rather, it probably caused him to learn the opposite. Ultimately, his family business success prepared him to be ineffective as a national political leader. While many smart people have adapted to learn a completely new style of leadership, given his age, personality, and track record only a few weeks into office, it’s hard to imagine this old dog learning new tricks.

So, in addition to problems with his radical political agenda or questions about his mental stability, his business experience is likely to ultimately be his undoing. Donald Trump never really lived in a context where millions of people around the world can “throw sand in the gears” of his programs. The Constitution makes quite clear that the President is not really “in charge” in the way Donald Trump is used to being in charge. He doesn’t solely control the levers that affect our country, politically, economically, or otherwise.

His opponents are already figuring this out, and I suspect their tactics will only grow more sophisticated as the months go by. People are already leveraging the power inherent in our democratic style of government — whether it be sustained protests, boycotts, legal challenges, resistance from other countries, or grassroots campaigns aimed at supporters in Congress — to modify, stymy or block his initiatives.

Donald Trump may have run for the U.S. Presidency, in part, because he was hungry for power. If so, he failed to recognize the irony that, by winning, he would be giving up a fair bit of the control to which he had grown so accustomed.

Is the President really well?

I must admit that during the primary season, I was much more scared of a President Ted Cruz than I was of a President Trump because I imagined Ted Cruz as a more ideologically-driven politically-savvy politician who would get lots of bad things done much more easily. I imagined a President Trump as a sort of buffoon whose irrational behavior would just make him completely inert for four years. However, I failed to predict the depth of his sociopathy fueled by his inner circle of sycophants, and the utter breakdown of the “checks and balances” in our system. It seemed (at the time) only rational to think that even a Republican congress wouldn’t allow a fraction of what he was spewing on the campaign trail. So, far, I’ve been proven wrong. It is not an exaggeration to think that we may now begin the darkest chapter in U.S.history in my half-century on this planet. However, I am truly heartened my fellow citizens who are fighting back, including at all of the airport demonstrations yesterday and all of the attorneys who are seeking legal remedies.

But it’s now time for our other branch of government to act, the legislative branch. It has nothing to do with political party, but rather holding up core American values and frankly saving this country (and the world) from long-term and possibly irreparable damage. Trump is not a Republican, and Republicans in congress need to realize they are actually the opposition party to him. This starts by recognizing that America did not elect someone who is psychologically stable. If it weren’t for the fact that he is so dangerous, I’d actually feel sympathy for Donald Trump — it doesn’t require a PhD in Psychology to recognize that he is not well. He exhibits almost every classic sign of sociopathy/psychopathy. Even if you like some of his policies (which we can debate another time), how can this illness not be recognized?
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The Education Competition Myth (and Why a Voucher System is Doomed to Fail our Kids)

It continues to be a great debate within the education community as to whether competition is a good thing or a bad thing. In fact, our current administration appears to be promoting an agenda of expanding “voucher” programs that are based on this notion that bringing choice and competition to the education world will improve the entire sector. There are those that argue that competition just works, regardless of the arena, and the pressure to perform better is a rising tide that will lift all boats. On the other hand, many educational leaders suggest that educators aren’t affected by these sorts of pressures, and that competition actually harms students. Unfortunately this debate misses the larger point in that the very premise of the debate itself is flawed. The question is not whether competition works or doesn’t work; the question is whether it can exist at all. For a healthy and effective competitive environment to exist, there are a number of prerequisites, and each of these needs to be examined in order to answer this fundamental question. For this analysis, these conditions are grouped into five different areas: (a) Customer Switching Capability, (b) Provider Capacity, (c) Clear Success Metrics, (d) Acceptance of Losers, and (e) Level Playing Field.

Customer Switching Capability
The first required condition for competition to exist is the ability for customers to change providers with minimal friction. Said another way, competition is based on the premise that “customers vote with their feet,” meaning they can easily pick (and change) the services and products that they feel best serve their needs. Implicit in this premise is the ability for customers to seamlessly change their provider without incurring extra cost, hassle, or some other side effect from making such a switch.

If customers cannot vote with their feet, then competition will have no effect. Let’s use an example of where such friction can exist. If you try two restaurants, and you decide that the one twenty miles away from you is superior to the one a block away from you, you may still make the trip and go to the farther one. The reason you can do this with minimal friction is that you don’t eat there every day, making the cost for the extra travel trivial. On the other hand, if you were somehow required to only eat at one restaurant each and every day, it would suddenly be a burden to drive back and forth to the farther restaurant. If physical distance (and associated time required) is a factor in consuming any product or service, friction is created proportionately to both that distance and the frequency in which that distance must be traveled to consume the product.

Schools, unlike restaurants, must be “consumed” every day by design. So, the choice of any family to pick schools is inherently limited — in many cases, the cost is just too high to travel every day to a distant school. So, even if there is a “choice” per se, there practically may not be one. And, even if changing schools were possible and practical, it can only be done at limited times. The disruption and potential harm caused by frequent school switching limits the ability of competitive forces to affect a change. Admittedly, one of the ways families can vote with their feet is by moving homes, but since where someone lives is the result of many factors (and practically, a family can only move a limited number of times), great friction still exists, and any competitive pressure would operate only over a long period of time, if at all.

So, here’s the rub – if physical distance is at all a factor, these very high “switching” costs make it unrealistic to believe that even if one school were obviously better than another, most families would have the seamless ability to pick the “better” school. What happens instead is the classic “cherry picking” effect whereby parents who have the means (time, money, or other resources) are better able to commit to sending their child to a different school, while those without the means in practice have no such choice. So, if the bulk of your “customers” can’t really switch, competitive pressure is limited and very slow at best.

Even for the parents who can exercise this choice, the situation is not all positive. If we give an incentive for them to travel to a more distant school, we potentially make it more difficult for them to actively participate in their children’s education — by volunteering at school, working on the PTA, and just being present on campus, especially in the lower grades. Often one of the main factors separating high performing schools from their lower performing counterparts is the partnership a school has with its parents. Choice associated with greater physical distance only hampers this partnership.

Provider Capacity
Another condition of successful competition is the requirement that the competitors can add capacity to meet the new demand (and/or raise prices) from these new customers who vote with their feet. That’s relatively easy for most businesses, but fairly difficult for a school whose service capacity is largely based on its physical capacity (and certainly a public school can’t regulate demand by price). And there is a limit to the number of schools that can practically locate in the same community before the student population is so fragmented among those schools that the diseconomies would dwarf the potential benefit of competition (making it more akin to a “natural monopoly,” analyzed in more detail below). So, at best, even if competitive pressures were to exist and customers could switch seamlessly, the actual providers — the schools –could only change very slowly to meet such demand.

Clear Success Metrics
The next condition of competition is to have a scoreboard. In business, this is fairly simple. A corporation’s duty is to maximize shareholder value. So, putting any other measure aside, one wins by increasing one’s stock price and providing a strong return to investors.

This is not true in schools. People often point to standardized test scores, but as metrics they are limited in many ways, including the fact that standardized tests measure only a small fraction of the value that schools deliver, and test scores more often reflect the population of the students than the quality of the school or its teaching. And perhaps most importantly, the value provided by schools is created — and is only evident — over a very long time horizon, making it extremely difficult to effectively compare institutions. Yes, all things being equal, higher scores are better than lower ones, but a singular reliance on them is not only deficient, but dangerous — at the end of the day, it doesn’t actually tell you how a school is teaching, and certainly does not indicate how your child is learning.

Lastly, we must ask to whom such value is delivered. As a stockholder in a company, it is fairly clear that I personally receive value when my stock’s price goes up, whereas the stakeholders in the success of public schools are much more diverse. Of course, the student receives a bulk of the value but so does everyone else in the community. In fact, the entire value proposition of public education is based on the notion that the public is better off when it pays to educate all of its future adults. How do we measure the value flowing to everyone else? This conundrum reflects the very nature of a “public good” and why we fund the service through tax revenue rather than through direct purchase from the consumer. I am the first to say that we need a better set of metrics to measure the value being created by schools, school districts, and even individual teachers. But even if we could objectively measure all of those things, it is extremely difficult to have an accurate scoreboard that measures the multiple dimensions of value delivered to the multiple beneficiaries over the long-term. Based on all of this, parents really don’t have full, complete, and comparative information (and often have incorrect or incomplete information) to make informed “buying” decisions that theoretically apply such competitive pressure.

Acceptance of Losing
Lastly, if competition breeds “winners,” it must also be acceptable to have “losers.” If one retailer goes out of business, I’ll buy from another. In schools, even if we knew with certainty that a school was underperforming (despite the problems with measurement and the time horizon mentioned above), do we want the school to lose? Losing often takes years, and we may find out years later that, although we put competitive pressure on the schools and eventually migrated most students to a better school, we sacrificed those kids that didn’t (or couldn’t) defect to the “better” school. It’s a pain if I spend some money on a product that didn’t work and then the company goes bankrupt, but it’s a tragedy to fail certain kids waiting on the pressure of the free market to work its magic. Kids only go through school once — we rarely get a “mulligan.” Unlike what is inevitable in business, we need all schools to win, so the relevant question may be how can we create an environment that allows all schools to be winners.

Level Playing Field
One of the fallacies of comparing business to public schools is that the former can pick its customers, whereas public institutions need to serve everyone. Inherent in the notion of competition is that you’re competing for someone — a certain sub-set of the population. If schools could freely compete like businesses (let’s say in a purely voucher system), there would be a big segment that no one would fight for. Those kids and their families would be left unserved or underserved.

But there is a good analogy in the private sector — natural monopolies. Natural monopolies are companies like utilities where the cost of creating competition is actually higher than the value of such competition (imagine five companies running electrical wires to your house – the massive inefficiency would dwarf the value of competitive pressure). That is why certain companies like utilities are allowed to keep their monopoly status but are regulated instead.

In markets where natural monopolies exist but “alternate” providers were allowed to compete, amazing unintended consequences emerged. When AT&T was broken up in 1984, the resulting seven “Baby Bells” were each required to provide service to every household in the country (”universal service”), while at the same time the market was deregulated to allow other providers to compete while not being subject to the same restrictions. The Baby Bells had to effectively “cross-subsidize” the costlier (often rural) customers with the more lucrative business customers, while the new firms didn’t need to. Guess what happened? New start-up telephone companies grabbed the lucrative business market, offering a better value as they weren’t forced to cross-subsidize. This wasn’t competition on a level playing field. Sound familiar? In many ways, this is exactly what private schools and charter schools do in relation to the overall public school system. They don’t create competitive pressure — rather many schools just cherry pick and create a larger burden on the public entity, which is required to serve all children, many of which require substantially more resources. This doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for charter or private schools – it just means it’s naïve to think that they are operating on the same level playing field. Certainly one can point to specific examples where the existence of a charter or private school made the community put pressure on the public schools to improve, but due to the lack of so many fundamental conditions for true competition, such examples will always be the exception rather than the rule.

Conclusion
Nothing herein should suggest that pressure to improve doesn’t — or shouldn’t — exist in public schools. It absolutely must to motivate school boards, superintendents, administrators, principals, and teachers to do the best job they possibly can. And just because we can’t define “winning” very well doesn’t mean that we don’t hold teachers, principals, and school districts accountable. But this is the fundamental role of our local political system. Each community needs easily accessible and useful information with multiple measures of success, and community members must stay involved and hold its schools accountable though their elected representatives. As public schools are certainly a “public good,” only this public and political process can provide public schools with the requisite funding to achieve the best outcomes and develop the best set of policies to promote excellent teaching and learning.

This is why any voucher system in education is doomed to fail. It is based on a faulty premise that competition can both exist and create pressure on the entire system to promote better outcomes for all. At best, it will give the illusion of choice where little actually exists, but at worst it will further distort the playing field and drain resources from the schools that need them the most and discriminate against those families with the least ability to make such a “choice” (effectively providing a subsidy to private schools and others that can “cherry pick” their students). So, instead of pitting every school against one another, let’s give all schools the resources — and then hold them accountable — to ensure that they are doing the best they can to help all of their students reach their potential and provide the “public good” benefit to all of us from a well-educated citizenry.

Why Government is Not (and Should Not be) Like Business

Political chatter seems to always center on how government is inefficient, inept, and wasteful; the oft-cited remedy for such failures is to make government act more like business. After all, isn’t it capitalism — the enterprising spirit, the competition, and the focus on the bottom line — that has made this country great? It is perhaps this sentiment, in part, which has fueled our electorate to support “outsiders” and “businesspeople” to the highest forms of our government.

As someone who studied economics and has worked in business for almost thirty years, I am very much a capitalist, so on the surface this point of view has appeal. But even a cursory review will demonstrate that these arguments miss the point — government institutions exist for a different purpose than businesses, and they should operate by a different set of rules. These distinctions are not trivial or accidental, but based upon the specific design and purpose of these institutions. I have grouped these distinctions into four specific areas to consider when we evaluate the effectiveness of our governing institutions and our elected leaders. These areas are (a) Mission and Focus, (b) Risk Profile, (c) Decision-Making, and (d) Measuring Value.

Mission and Focus
In business, the ultimate goal of the organization is to maximize the return to shareholders (i.e., make as much money as possible). A company’s “mission statements” is often its organizing principle to create value (e.g. Google’s mission is to “Organize the World’s Information”), but these mission statements are a means to an end…the end being to maximize shareholder value. This profit motive is the driving force behind capitalism and the catalyst for innovation, efficiency, and competition.

Government agencies, on the other hand, are not motivated by profit, but rather by a “mission” in the more literal sense of the word, e.g. to educate children, to keep the public safe, etc. In this way, government agencies are more akin to non-profits than for-profit corporations. This very purpose shapes the goals set by the organization, the types of people it hires, and the context in which those employees work.

Fundamental to a profit-maximizing business is the axiom that businesses choose what business they want to be in. In order to maximize return for shareholders, businesses must find what unique value they bring (versus their competitors) to what unique segment of the market. Business strategy is about focus and positioning — what product/service will I deliver, how will I deliver it uniquely compared to alternatives, and to whom will I deliver it. This last piece is critical — businesses get to pick their customers! Even thought it serves a huge market, Apple doesn’t make computers for everyone — it makes them for customers with a certain profile, and then markets those products with messages that resonate to those customer segments. When an organization picks its customers, it is also implicitly picking the customers it will not target or even serve at all. This holds true for General Motors, Time Warner, or your local Italian restaurant. Businesses need to deliver something uniquely valuable to a targeted market. (This is not to say that all businesses actively refuse to sell to certain people — it’s just that the very nature of their messaging and product focus, by definition, will appeal to only a subset of the market that they choose).

Contrast this to public institutions, which don’t have the luxury of picking their customers. By design, government agencies have to serve everyone in their domain, and the likelihood that such constituents are homogenous is very slim. Take public schools, for example. A private school — by definition — gets to choose what students it serves, and by doing so, it should excel. It can effectively become a specialist in delivering a certain type of education to a certain sub-population of students. Economists refer to this phenomenon as “cherry picking.” Public schools, on the other hand, must serve all children that live within that population, and of course the needs, abilities, and respective support structures for these children will be very different. The very requirement to serve a broad, heterogeneous population inherently makes a government agency less “efficient” as compared to its private entity counterpart. However, being less efficient does not mean it is not fulfilling its mission and purpose.

This is true because “efficiency” (in its narrowest sense) and “efficacy” are not necessarily the same thing. Particularly with government services whose missions likely involved some sort of universal delivery model, efficacy is achieved by something other than the strategy taken by an “efficient” business. For a local Fire Department, the most “efficient” model would be to staff the firehouse with only enough firefighters so that they are deployed close to 100% of the time. However, since fires don’t occur in regular intervals, such efficiency would result in the fire department not getting to certain fires. No citizen wants it to be their house that is missed by the firefighters, so fire stations staff up to ensure capacity for close the maximum perceived need, not the average forecasted need. Of course, this means that firefighters will be less than fully deployed for a good part of the day. But we should be ok with that, as it is much better than the alternative! So in this case, the firehouse is “efficient” with respect to accomplishing its mission, but not “efficient” in terms of a traditional business paradigm of output per person hour.

In business, it is competition which keeps organizations in check in terms of the prices they charge and the quality they deliver. With few exceptions (such as natural monopolies), this competition is fundamental to a capitalistic system. But competition often means that some entity wins and some entity loses. Losing could mean having the smaller market share, but it could also mean going out of business. In fact, businesses close down and others start up every day. Government agencies, on the other hand, don’t “compete” in the same sense, and it’s unrealistic to ask them to. Do you want to have two police forces fighting to get to the same crime scene first? Do we want government agencies to go out of business and others start-up on a regular basis? Of course not. Consistency of delivery is a hallmark of a public service. If my TV manufacturer goes out of business, well no big deal — I’ll buy my next TV from someone else. But for our armed forces, do we want a different organization managing the country’s defense every year?

Risk Profile
Risk is inherent in the capitalistic notions of profit maximization and competition. Businesses take risk. By and large, it is the businesses that take the most risk (and then in turn succeed) that deliver the greatest return to their shareholders. However, for every company that succeeds, many more fail. This is totally acceptable in a capitalistic system because it is this risk taking which fuels innovation and growth. However, no one in business would be willing to take these risks unless they had a system that protected their “downside.” The corporation was invented to do exactly that — it shields the individual owners, directors, officers, and other employees from individual liability. They are protected from financial loss (shareholders can only lose the money they put in, but not more) as well as legal liability in the case where the company causes harm to others (except in extreme circumstances). This is known as the corporate “shield.” The ultimate manifestation of this shield is the bankruptcy process. When a company goes bankrupt, it restructures or eliminates its liabilities. The corporation can be re-formed and start again, or it can be dissolved. In any case, the individuals within the company have no downside other than the money they invested themselves. In fact, the bankruptcy process in this country has been crucial to its economic growth. Without a bankruptcy system, companies would certainly not have taken the risks that they have, and without the risk taking, there would be little innovation or growth.

With very limited exceptions, government agencies don’t go bankrupt. The risk of their not being able to deliver on their services is just too great. Again, we’re ok with a restaurant going under, but what happens if my police force goes bankrupt? Do I not have police protection for a while? Therefore, government agencies by design will be more risk averse. The consistency of delivery of those services trumps the potential to optimize them.

In a government setting, risk is also measured in more than just financial terms. For example, no one argues that public schools are doing everything possible they can for all students — we know there can be improvements. Even though most school districts are constantly trying to improve curriculum and instruction and learn new “best practices,” schools will inherently move slowly and cautiously in making changes. The reason is simple. In a corporate setting, the risk of experimenting on a new product is limited (the risk is the loss of the investment made in that product), but do we really want to dramatically experiment with our children’s future? The price for being “wrong” is often just too high in delivering a public service. Of course, schools and government agencies should always look to improve, but it’s hard to fault them for being cautious.

Decision Making
Otto Von Bismarck allegedly remarked that “laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.” The work of government is like sausage-making — slow, sloppy, and ugly at times. Why is that? I would argue there are two main reasons. The first is that it is the inevitable outcome of the government’s need to serve a broad constituency as well as the need to reduce risk as described above. Serving a heterogeneous constituency and being more risk averse will always make things a little slower. However, the other reason lies in another fundamental tenet of government — openness. We see the sausage making because we’re allowed to, and our very witnessing of this process inherently makes it more sausage-like! As someone who has worked for many companies over the last couple of decades, there were countless very painful decision decision-making processes, however none of them were visible to the public. Business interactions are by and large secret. Compensation levels of most employees are secret; strategic plans are secret; computer code is secret, and the discussion at board of directors meetings is mostly secret. This secrecy — or at a minimum the ability to choose what information is made public and what is not — is another cornerstone of capitalism. It allows companies to compete with each other, to shape their overall message to the market, and to manage their employees in the most flexible way. So, in most companies there is plenty of sausage-making; it’s just not visible to most of us.

Contrast this to public agencies, which by most measures are an open book. The very nature of the decision-making process of a public institution requires the input and participation of the public, and the nature of bringing in such a broad and diverse group of constituents into your decision-making process necessarily makes it slower and more complex. Board meetings of all elected bodies are held in public. All contracts are made public. All salaries are made public. The process to get bids on large projects is a public and inclusive process. From a businessperson’s perspective, these are all anathematic requirements — it would be viewed as impossible to run a real business that way. Could you imagine a scenario where any Apple shareholder can get three minutes to address the Board of Directors of Apple at every board meeting (not just the quarterly shareholder meetings)? But this seeming lack of efficiency and flexibility is the price for openness. And after all, as these are public institutions funded with tax dollars, would we expect our citizens to want something less than transparency? (Obviously there are areas of government that are secret — which include things such as war plans all the way to the identity of kids expelled from school — but in aggregate, the level of secrecy is miniscule compared to that in business. And that is how it’s supposed to be.) The public benefits from being part of this public process.

Even though governments are often accused of “waste, fraud, and abuse,” that is hardly limited to public institutions — it’s just that in the corporate setting, we just don’t often hear about it. This is why I find this critique to ring both hollow and hypocritical. Just because we don’t as often hear about mistakes or misconduct reported in the private sector, that hardly means it doesn’t exist, or even exist on a much bigger scale. Think Wells Fargo, Samsung, Volkswagen, Enron, Lehman, BP, Halliburton, et al — and these are just the ones that got caught! Anyone who has had any significant business experience has personally witnessed all forms of bad behavior — everything from padding expense reports to lying to customers to harassing employees to actual fraud. In any organization of humans — public or private — there will be those who abuse the system. It just so happens that the private sector has more tools to hide it. Personally I have witnessed all of this bad behavior in my business career, but most people can’t give specifics because they are bound by non-disclosure agreements – so many matters get settled outside of the public eye. So, I always find it ironic when businesspeople who decide to run for political office suddenly rail on government for their excesses.

Measuring Value
One makes decisions to affect value. The hope is that every decision we make enhances value somewhere, or why would we be making that decision? In business, every decision is about furthering the company’s mission. Fortunately, business has a common currency to measure that value — money. Profits are relatively easy to measure. Individuals within a business may disagree on the best way to achieve their goals, but the end game is rarely in dispute. This is not true for government institutions — in any sizable group of citizens, there will be honest disagreements on the goal. Even within a small city, some citizens will favor high growth and more development while others will want the opposite. Again, the institutions are designed to best serve the interests of the broadest group of people.

How does government measure the value it delivers? Certainly it takes money into account, and often this is subject to healthy debate among the citizenry as to the level of its spending. However, the real problem is that it is extremely difficult to measure the value of government output. This is driven by two distinct problems:

  • The fundamental difficulty in measuring the value (and agreeing on the value) of areas such as security, education, happiness, community, convenience, and recreation. Everyone values each of these things, but try to get people to tell you how much they are worth. They are fundamentally difficult to measure and impossible to get agreement on.
  • Government services affect an extremely long time horizon. Although businesses may do 3-5 year strategic plans, government services can affect people’s lives decades after they are delivered. How does the education I provide a kindergartener today affect his/her life twenty years from now? And how does it affect other people’s lives, in terms of economic growth, crime, or in other areas? Although few would argue that there isn’t such a long-term connection, it is daunting to try to measure that connection and near impossible for the citizenry to take that account when asking governments to make decisions today which affect theirs and other’s lives decades from now.

This is another reason why governments are often accused of waste, because often such waste is in the eye of the beholder. For example, if you are personally not in favor of government spending money on high-speed rail, then from your point of view, it’s a “waste” of money, whereas the proponent would consider it an “investment.” That perspective is completely independent from whether the money is spent “efficiently” to achieve its outcome. If you don’t support the outcome in the first place, then it’s “waste” to you. Public institutions have the burden of serving a much broader group of “shareholders” — the entire taxpaying public — who of course will rarely agree on the value or necessity of any particular initiative.

Conclusion
I believe capitalism is a beautiful thing. But it is clearly not perfect. Capitalism is conditioned upon the free flow of information, capital, and resources (the last being the most difficult) and it fails in certain areas like externalities and natural monopolies. And as they are run by fallible people, businesses are also fallible. Whether it is oil spills, unsafe toys, or financial market manipulation, capitalism does not in and of itself protect the citizenry from unscrupulous or manipulative behavior. Therefore, government is in the odd position of both being a promoter of capitalism (providing the regulatory environment to promote business and innovation) but also acting as the check on its potential excesses. Only the most orthodox of Libertarians would suggest that we don’t have an FDA with at least some regulation on the safety of our food.

All of this analysis is not to suggest that government can’t learn from business. Quite the contrary. Many innovations and methodologies developed in private enterprise have been and should be adopted by many government agencies. But we must recognize that government will always be a laggard by design.

One should also not conclude that public agencies are beyond criticism — of course not. There are legitimate differences in what we all value, and it’s reasonable to debate the role of our government agencies and the decisions made by our elected leaders. It’s also very reasonable to debate whether we should even have a certain government service, and if so, how much we should spend on it. However, in having this debate, we should remember the role of government and how it is distinct from many of our own experiences in business. It is unfair (and unproductive) to criticize our public agencies for doing what they are designed to do, but rather we should focus the debate on those things that are within their design — what do we value as a community and what are the long-term effects of government decisions made today.

What we learned from our first child’s journey through the college admissions process

INTRODUCTION
As a parent, it’s easy to convince yourself that it has all led up to this – every parenting decision you have made to date has somehow molded your child to be ready to leave the nest and go to college. It’s all too tempting to think that where they go to college is not just a judgment on them, but also a reflection on you. Parents who have kids as young as kindergarteners attempt to picture the road for their children – a road that ends with college and a road that we as parents are responsible for paving. That’s a fairly big burden to carry.

So, no wonder that when one actually gets to be in sight of the college admissions process that we as parents place a lot of pressure on both ourselves and our child. It’s an inherently stressful journey due to its intrinsic uncertainty combined with the weighty importance we place on the outcome. Naturally, this stress is elevated when one goes through the process with your first child.

Having just finished this first journey, my wife, son, and I have learned a lot – some from the great advice we received from others, some from the mistakes we made, and some just serendipitously. A lot has changed since we went to college about 30 years ago, and we were surprised how much we didn’t know. We learned lessons both philosophical and practical, however the former were critical to actuate the latter.

I naturally recognize that every child is different, and everyone’s parenting style (and background and experience) is different, but hopefully many of these lessons will resonate for most. It’s important to note that if your child is a potential Division I athlete or an outstanding artist/musician/thespian, there are very specific elements to that journey that would differ significantly from ours.

THE NATURE OF COLLEGE ADMISSIONS
The first thing you notice as a parent is how every school seems much more competitive and selective than it was a generation ago. This isn’t a mirage – it’s fundamentally due to a change in supply and demand. Although the supply of college enrollment slots has only grown minimally over the last few decades (only a handful of new universities have launched, and there has been generally modest enrollment growth from existing schools), the demand has skyrocketed. This is largely the result of the overall growth in the U.S. population, the percentage of U.S. high school students applying to college, and the growth of international students attending U.S. colleges(1). In addition, the Internet and the Common Application specifically have made it easier to apply to many more schools (I applied to five colleges whereas my son applied to 12). Because of the Common App and the relatively ease to communicate with prospective students in this digital age, colleges are more aggressive than ever in marketing to students. This allows them to reach potential students on a much broader scale than ever before. By increasing the number of applicants, they effectively lower their acceptance rates and become more “selective.”

The inevitable result from all of these factors is a lower acceptance rate across the board. Comparing acceptance rates from just 10 years ago, one sees dramatic declines at most schools. Here are a few examples at historically very “selective” institutions – showing 2006 vs. 2016 (2):

  • Stanford University (10% vs. 4.7%)
  • University of Chicago (38% vs. 7%)
  • University of Southern California (22% vs. 15%)
  • Vanderbilt University (33% vs. 13%)
  • Northwestern University (31% vs. 13%)

With a larger pool of students from which to draw and a lower acceptance rate, the requirements for admission get more rigid, including higher GPAs and standardized test scores. Also, as most schools report that a significantly higher number of students than those who get accepted would thrive at their institution, they are seemingly choosing between applicants who, on paper, may seem very similar. Ergo, from an applicant’s or parent’s point of view, there appears to be a lot of randomness in the system. Additionally, you quickly learn that some of the traditional “thumb on the scale” factors such as having an alumnus parent don’t hold the weight that they used to.

So, that’s the bad news. But there is good news as well. Because almost every school is more “selective” than it used to be, the caliber of the students has improved in all of these schools. Colleges that in the past may have been our “safety school” (or the one where our less accomplished high school peers attended) have suddenly become places that are both more selective with students who are quite accomplished.

There is an upside to all of this digital age marketing – students and parents can be exposed to many more schools that they might not have considered (or even heard of) in years past. Generally, more information is a good thing. Going through this process, one appreciates how many amazing schools are out there across the country (plus of course internationally if that can be considered). As a parent, you know a lot less than you think you did about hundreds of colleges. No doubt there are so many great schools (and some incredibly selective) that you probably never would have thought to consider based solely on your personal experience. The first lesson as a parent going through this process is recognizing what you don’t know.

Therefore, the biggest problem is not the uncertainty about getting into a great school but rather the awesome task of narrowing down the list of great schools.

NARROWING THE LIST
The biggest lesson that we learned is to first let go of the traditional construct of how we view schools – that every school is somehow on one long linear scale with the best at the top and some school no one has heard of at the bottom. The nature of the “product” of delivering a higher education is so complex and rich that it eschews attempts to measure it on a linear scale. Not that people haven’t tried. There are tons of college rankings – the most well known being from U.S. News and World Report. It’s naïve to think that parents won’t check these rankings, but it’s important to keep in mind that they are inherently both flawed and easily manipulated. For more detail on how these college rankings work and why they are so problematic, search for Frank Bruni’s articles in the New York Times. He lays out very thoughtful arguments that demonstrate the shortcoming of college rankings and presents evidence that our children’s success in life is more correlated to what they do with their college experience rather than the pedigree of institution that they attend.

With this frame of mind, we can change the conversation from what is the “best school that our child can get into” to what is the “best school for our child.” But if all things were equal, wouldn’t you want your child to go to the school with the best reputation (assuming you can even measure that)? Of course, but never are all things equal. It’s really about trying to divine the best fit for that student, which is enough of a challenge already. Your own biases or your long-held impression of a school’s “brand” could make it harder to find that best fit.

It’s also important to recognize that as little you know about colleges, your student knows even less. Sure, they’ve heard of Stanford, some of the Ivy League schools, and probably the big football schools around the country, but their lens through which they view colleges is mostly shaped by what you tell them. If you denigrate a school because it’s where your not-so-bright friend in high school went thirty years ago, they’ll never be able to view that place objectively. This is why in our children’s high school, they avoid the term “safety school.” There are schools where the student is “likely” to gain admission and schools that are “reaches,” but these are less loaded terms. So, it’s important to keep in mind that you have a ton of influence as to how your child will view a school and how excited they will or will not be at the prospect of attending it.

One of the hardest – and perhaps most counter-intuitive – lessons is to largely block out everybody else’s opinions of individual schools. Just as you recognize biases in yourself, recognize that everyone else has their own. The views of grandparents are likely out of date, out of context and not objective related to their grandchild who clearly could just waltz into any college they wish. Even friends – some of whom have gone through the college admissions process with their children – likely have strong biases based on either what was a good fit for their own child or something related to their own experience. Don’t ask anyone who went to UCLA what he thinks of USC, or anyone who went to the University of Michigan what she thinks of the University of Wisconsin. The main exception to this rule is that you absolutely gain valuable insights from current students (or their parents) at a particular school you’re researching.

Besides making some assumptions on certain characteristics of good fit schools (size, location, etc.), the target list is narrowed by learning where my child has some shot of getting accepted. Many high schools use a tool like Naviance as both a college application management system as well as a research tool. If schools keep the data, a student can compare his/her grades and SAT/ACT scores to students from their same school who in the past got accepted or rejected from any given college. Although Naviance is a great tool if used well, it can force a parent through the five stages of grief:

  • Denial – “There’s no way you need this GPA to get into that school!”
  • Anger – “The whole system is crazy!”
  • Bargaining – “Well, maybe if my child can play sports, or maybe they’ll just interview really well, and they can get into that school.”
  • Depression – “My child is never going to get into a great college”
  • Acceptance – “I understand that there are so many more great schools out there than I had thought of, and my child will get accepted to one which is a great fit.”

It is important to keep in mind that even this kind of data leaves out many factors that are additionally important in predicting whether or not a student gets accepted into any college. This is where your counselor comes in to help guide the student to create a balanced list of schools – ones that are a “reach,” ones that are “likely”, and ones in the middle. However, we have found that there is “arbitrage” in the system – based on what high school your student attends, for any given college they may have a relative advantage or disadvantage versus the applicant pool at large. This can be based on the high school’s particular grading system and rigor (and how certain colleges view that) or it can be based on relationships built up between high school counselors and college admissions officers.

VISITING SCHOOLS
It would be very difficult (and near impossible for your child) to get a good sense of a school without visiting it. Clearly the need to travel (spending money and time) may limit how many schools you can visit, but I can easily say that this was the most fun part of the college search process (for me). It’s absolutely fascinating to see how schools sell themselves, what sparks your child’s interest, and learning what they really care about and what they don’t. You’ll likely be surprised, as there were schools that my wife and I found incredibly impressive, but our son didn’t. It’s hard to remember that it’s not about us! In any case, start every visit with an open mind.

Naturally you have to start with some filter to narrow down the list of schools to potentially visit – size of school, section of country, rural vs. suburban vs. urban, sports-focused, religious/secular, etc. We got great advice that if your family is traveling for a vacation, just make a visit to a local college (even if that particular school won’t likely be a target) as it gives you and your student context as to what a school with certain characteristics (size, location, etc.) looks like – remember, they have no idea! This will inform your child in helping determine the features they like (or don’t like) about schools. Some of the most informative tours we went on were ones that our son hated, because it really helped us all focus on what was important to him.

The biggest challenge with visiting schools is remembering everything you saw, heard and felt – frankly after a bunch of visits, the experiences start to blend together and you start misattributing observations. Although it would be difficult (and probably awkward) to take notes while on a tour, we always got together as a family right after our visit (often by sitting in one of the school eateries) and having our student write down notes of everything we heard, observations, etc. Keep those notes in a single notebook or other place where they can be retrieved later (and will come in handy for the student to reference specific things they learned when they complete their application). Some students also like to take pictures to jog their memories.

For some of our visits, we brought along our younger child who frankly was less than enthused to go on all of these tours. If this can’t be avoided, it worked for us to give the sibling a job. We made a game of it. The night before we were to go on a college tour, each family member “bet” on one word which would be repeated most often by the tour guide (e.g., “community,” “relationships,” “challenge,” “safety,” etc.) and then the younger sibling would just keep a little score sheet tabulating the frequency of each word. It get them busy and put a little humor into the process as well.

Lastly, don’t rely solely on what you hear in the information session and tour. They’re of course valuable, but you have to recognize that they are part of the school’s marketing – and some schools just market better than others. Besides feedback from current students (or their parents) that you know, try to spend some time checking out the feel of the campus and watching the student interaction – your child may be able to pick up on whether he/she could see themselves there. (This is more difficult if you visit when students aren’t in session, which sometimes you must do given everyone’s schedule). One specific tip we were given is to recommend that your child go up to a couple of random students on the campus, introduce themselves saying they are a prospective student, and ask them two questions: (a) what’s your favorite thing about this school? and (b) what’s your least favorite thing about this school? Some high school kids may be too shy to do this, but college students are generally happy to talk to them. In this very short conversation, the student will gain some very valuable insights. If the school offers the ability for a student to sit in on a class, encourage them to sign up for that. It will help them both sense the “vibe” of the students as well give them a glimpse as to what college classes feel like.

THE APPLICATION PROCESS
Despite the existence of the Common App, this process is a lot of work and is generally no fun for the student. But there are some things we learned which could mitigate the stress involved.

First, long before college application time, make sure your child has a resume. They should have this anyway as they may apply for summer jobs or internships, but we found that the resume was a great “cheat sheet” to remind him what to include in college apps – both when they have to fill out the activities/extracurricular section but also as ideas for what to include in essays.

But probably the most important thing we learned was to have your student start early. They will likely be resistant to this idea, but saving all of the work for the first semester of senior year can be very stressful. The Common App (and the University of California) essay prompts are published well in advance, so it’s possible for the student to start drafting some essays over the summer. (It may be obvious to say that a student should just copy all essay prompts into a single Word document so that it can be edited and sections can be reused for similar essays, and then when completely done copied into the online application form). Obviously the student should leverage their guidance counselor and any resources offered by their school to help guide them through the application, but having a couple of essays completed before senior year starts puts them in a much better position.

Also some schools put greater weight than others on “demonstrated interest” (visiting the school, contacting the admissions office, even clicking on links in e-mails they send, etc.). They do this because one of their biggest challenges is managing “yield” (the percentage of students who accept an offer). Your child should leverage the advice of their college counselor to see how he/she can best demonstrate interest. In general, a counselor is often a better “task master” than the parents for the entire application process, but at the same time a good college counselor should be one who reduces the stress inherent in the process (for both student and parent), not add to it.

There’s of course all of the other aspects of the college application process, including taking the SAT or ACT, getting teacher (or other) recommendations, and going on an interview (at colleges where they are offered). Think of all of this when planning ahead and trying to avoid as much of a crunch time during the senior fall. If you think your student would do reasonably well in an interview, have them sign up for those. We’ve heard conflicting advice on whether interviews make a difference, but it probably can’t hurt, and to practice interviewing is just a good skill to have regardless. They should just remember to be themselves, use the essays they have written and their resume as something they review before the interview, and make sure they have a few questions prepared to ask the interviewer.

If at all possible, encourage your child to apply early to as many schools as possible (to the degree it is permitted, e.g. you can’t apply Early Decision or Restrictive Early Action to multiple schools) – there is really no downside other than making sure the work is done, and there is only upside in both potentially boosting chances of acceptance and hearing back from schools earlier. In any case, pretend that the application deadlines are actually a week earlier than published. It’s always good to leave a little buffer just in case there is any problem with the submission, including any technical issues and making sure all other materials are in.

TALKING ABOUT COLLEGE
Naturally, many of your friends have children also applying to college, so many others you know are going through the same process, each with a likely different philosophical view and level of stress. And your kids are different people. This makes it awkward to have conversations with friends and family about colleges. Kids feel this same awkwardness in talking to each other. It’s hard to separate conversations about college with the feeling that someone in their mind is comparing students against one another – all related to this common notion of putting schools on a “better/worse” continuum rather than thinking about fit. Of course you can’t avoid most conversations, but you can avoid exacerbating the awkwardness by using social media – Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or Snapchat posts about where your child got into school should probably be left until the school year is close to over.

Of course, even within your own family it’s hard not to turn every conversation into something about college, because it seems to always hang over you. Besides potentially increasing stress levels, disproportionate dialog may also make siblings feel a little left out. So, although it’s absolutely necessary to have many open and serious conversations with your child to figure out the best college fit, it’s also important to set aside some times to not talk about the process (maybe over dinners, etc.).

Most importantly, be patient and forgiving – with your child and between spouses. Periodically remind your child (and yourself) that they will get into a great school that is a smart fit for them. Remind them that getting accepted or rejected is not the same as succeeding or failing, and that what’s most important is how they take advantage of their college experience. Anecdotal evidence suggests that most kids are very happy with their ultimate choice of school and happy with their experience there. But even in the case where they are not, it’s not forever – they can change course and transfer later. In any case, despite what you may have thought when the kids were in kindergarten, you haven’t actually reached the “end” anyway – your parenting continues and hopefully will for many years!

Footnotes
(1) According to the Institute of International Education, there were about 427,000 international undergraduates at U.S. colleges and universities in 2015-2016, up 79% from over a decade ago.
(2) Source: Menlo School

Leaked Trump Speech Prepared for GOP Convention

According to anonymous sources, Donald Trump drafted this speech to deliver at the Republic National Convention in Cleveland in July. It’s incredible!

My fellow Americans, tonight is a special night indeed. Thank you for the honor of nominating me to be the Republican candidate for President of the United States. This is truly an historic occasion, but perhaps not in the way the most people think. I have faced huge obstacles in getting here today, yet due to the support of millions of Americans, I stand before you now as your nominee. When I first entered the race, I was mocked by the media and by the Republican establishment as just a reality star looking for publicity. But the voters took me seriously. When I mocked Mexicans and talked about building a big wall and having Mexico pay for it, every candidate on both sides of the aisle said I was xenophobic and unrealistic. But the voters took me seriously. When I mocked my fellow candidates on their looks, pundits said I went to far. But the voters took me seriously. When I talked about not letting Muslims in our country, the establishment said I was through. But the voters wanted more!

So what does this prove? It shows something amazing! Obviously, people are sick and tired of the politicians we have in this country – we have a bunch of losers! The people are looking for an outsider. Money rules in the U.S. political system, and I admitted to have taken advantage of that as much as I could. People have criticized me for donating to candidates of both parties, but of course I did. That’s how the system works. I have money – lots of money – and our system runs on money, and it would be stupid if I didn’t use my money to influence as many candidates as possible to benefit me and my companies. It would be bad for business if I didn’t.

The second lesson here is that – believe me – there are too many Americans that frankly aren’t very bright. No offense – I love you all, but you either can’t understand the issues, don’t take time to understand the issues, or are so emotionally driven by fear and hate that you will actually follow a demagogue. What I found most interesting is that the Republican establishment tried to stop me at every turn, yet they failed to realize the big irony – the fact that their politics of the last couple of decades – the politics of obstruction, exclusion, science denying, and fear – created the very conditions that allowed me to run and to win. Of course, they weren’t by themselves in doing this – they got a lot of help from our good friends at Fox News, who frankly doesn’t really care much about politics either. They just discovered that they can make money off the American people by being the mouthpiece of this fear. Trust me – they don’t put women like Megyn Kelly on the air because of their brains –she gets men to watch though! (By the way, the real reason I don’t like Megyn Kelly is not because she asked hard questions at the debate, but rather because she doesn’t take responsibility for being part of the problem. She stoked Americans’ fears for years, and then suddenly is shocked when someone runs for President embodying all of those ideas. And I do think she wants to sleep with me, so clearly she has some sexual tension issues).

It’s crazy that you all didn’t figure out that I got into this race as a bit of a stunt. I thought it would be fun to run my own little social experiment and at the same time mess with the Republicans, who have really become the party of stupid – and now a party that is in shambles – thanks to me! I will say that my experiment was an amazing success. I was constantly testing the limits of how far you would let me go. I mocked disabled people, and you clapped. I made up facts, and you clapped. I insulted and fear-baited. I even talked about dating my daughter, and that didn’t bother you! I bragged about the size of my penis, and you were impressed! I intentionally made up most of what I said –independent fact checkers said that over three-quarters of what I said was false – and the voters still supported me. I can say something like, “We’re going to win so much, you’re going to be sick of winning.” We laughed so hard when we came up with that line! And my favorite part of this experiment was how much money we raised! Even though I always talk about how much money I have – I am really rich, you know – people still go on my website and send me donations that I clearly don’t need.

My I.Q. is one of the highest – you know it, and I know it. So c’mon, don’t you think I know that we have airplanes that can fly over any border wall that can be built…I know you can’t torture family members of suspected terrorists…I know immigrants have been critical in making up the tapestry of American life…heck, I married two of them! Yet, you let me keep going, and it was fun, so I kept going! This goes to prove that the Republican Party (with the help of Fox News) bamboozled you all into being driven by fear and the politics of exclusion. Even with hundreds of pundits, current and former politicians, military leaders, and even comedians poking holes in most of what I said, fear and ignorance blinded you. I was huge – the biggest phenomenon in the American history of politics!

Now, I wasn’t lying about a lot of things I spoke about. We are being run by some very stupid people, but I mostly mean our Congress. It is also shocking that one of the two major political parties in this country can’t put up a candidate who has any sense. I was telling the truth when I said that Ted Cruz is a liar (and a complete nut job, by the way) and Marco Rubio is a lightweight. Jeb Bush and Ben Carson – seriously, guys? But perhaps they are just a reflection of the voters – the American people need to look in the mirror, because so many of them are frankly not that bright and a little nuts themselves.

The truth is that I don’t really care about a lot of the political issues – abortion, immigration, gay rights, gun rights, etc. Of course, I care about taxes – lowering them generally helps me, so of course I favor that. But frankly, I don’t want the job as President of the United States. That would be way too stressful and frankly my life is pretty good without it. I can live anywhere I want in beautiful homes and resorts, and I have my beautiful wife – isn’t she terrific! I am my own boss – who would want to deal with Congress and putzes like Mitch McConnell who also don’t want to get anything done. It would be way too frustrating for me to be President – I’m the best at business, and I’m great on television. And it pays a hell of a lot more than being President!

I’m the only one who could have pulled this off and throw this entire process – and this party – into chaos. It deserved to be broken. And it’s not a terrible thing that I probably just handed the Presidency to Hillary Clinton. I disagree with Hillary on some issues, but as I have said in the past, she is smart, hard-working, and does truly care about the American people. You know and I know that with the exception of some social issues like gay marriage (which is of course a good thing), this county has drifted pretty far to the right over the last couple of decades, and Hillary Clinton is fairly close to what mainstream Republicans were in the era of Reagan. She will do fine as president, and hopefully our leaders can come together instead of creating the level of obstruction that they did for President Obama.

So, I will go down on history. Not as the first outsider President, but rather as the outsider who finally exposed our crazy system. I talked about making radical changes in Washington, and what I did will do that, just not in the way you thought I would. Thank you again for allowing me to have a ton of fun – I promised something huge, and historians will say this was huge! Don’t be offended by my experiment on you; you couldn’t help yourself. Just take the opportunity to take your heads out of your asses and stop being so stupid. If you do, we will make America great again! Thank you and good night.

Stay Classy, San Carlos

Last night was my final San Carlos School District Board Meeting as a Governing Board member, and it was bittersweet. Thank you to all who came by to see my last meeting and went out to celebrate afterwards. In the middle of the meeting, there was also an incredible surprise by former Bye Bye Birdie cast mates and SCSD teachers who broke into a flash mob singing a parody of Put on a Happy Face — it was incredible thougtful and entertaining!

The past eight years have been incredible, and I have been so privileged to serve in this community. Posted to last night’s agenda was a brief overview of our accomplishments, the lessons that I’ve learned, and the plethora of people to acknowledge and thank.

A few weeks ago I outlined a list of changes to, and accomplishments by, our school district over the last eight years.

And about a month ago, I put together a white paper on the big lessons learned over these eight years of service. Thank you to all of the folks who have already sent me so much positive feedback on this — clearly so many of these lessons apply to other school districts and other local agencies.

Of course there is a ton of work to still be done in our school district – that is the nature of a dynamic learning organization with grand plans. Last night I touched on what I referred to as the three “big rocks” — areas that I thought would be important themes over the next decade:

The “Meaty” Parts of the Strategic Plan
I have been so impressed how our staff has embraced our strategic plan – in fact this change has happened quicker than I would have predicted when we wrote it. I realize it has taken a ton of work, and we’ve had a few bumps in the road. But as we look forward over the next few years, I would suggest that the level of work and difficulty will actually ramp up as we get into the areas that I consider the most “meaty” in the Strategic Plan – those notions that change the very structure of how we run a school system, such as:

  • Implementing real personalized learning (building the “ecology” around providing this experience – sorting through the myriad of tools, having the right policies, supporting educators, etc.)
  • Changing the role of the educator, and putting a structure behind the concept of the “educator broadly defined”
  • Redefining the relationship with the public so as to embrace a culture of risk taking
  • Reexamining the very structure of time, place, and student sorting in defining what is “school”

Changing the Conversation about Success and Progress
This, in and of itself, is a meaty part of the Strategic Plan, but it seemed worthy to call it out separately. I’m pleased with the progress we’ve made to date on our dashboard efforts and all of the new data we’re collecting, but it will absolutely be a challenge to create a measurement and reporting system that can accomplish all of the following:

  • Avoid reductionism so that information is relevant and placed in context
  • Highlight what’s truly important
  • Have information that is actionable at a board level as well as have a set of formative data for our educators and students
  • Somehow be able to analyze innovative efforts to help shape a culture in the community around risk-taking

Fundamentally, we have to try to measure our progress by looking at the areas we most care about – of course we want academic progress, but how do we genuinely know if our students are reaching their social and emotional potential and are becoming problem-solvers, critical thinkers, innovators, collaborators, and good communicators who are empathetic citizens and leaders? Cracking this nut would be a giant step forward in public education.

Making San Carlos Livable for Our Staff
We have a long-term affordability problem in the Bay Area – it will be increasingly difficult to live in this community. I can’t see any scenario where California education funding will permit us to, over the medium to long-term, pay all of our employees wages that will grow as fast as the cost of living. This is of course not just a looming crisis for SCSD, but for all public agencies and for the economy in general.

The problem with the crisis is that it’s a slowly moving one – we won’t wake up one day and say “wow, none of our employees can afford to live in the area” – it will happen slowly over time as it will get harder and harder for all to live near where they work.

So, I challenged the next board to think creatively about how we can continue to attract and retain quality employees in such a trend. Likely such as an effort would require more than just our school district – perhaps in partnership with the city, the County, the high school district, or even community-based organizations, we can think about creating housing for public workers. For example, I’d love to see a bond measure sponsored by both the school district and city to support all of the folks who work for public agencies. Universities and community colleges have historically done this, and I don’t see any reason why it can’t be done on the K-12 level – we’d of course have to make the case to the public, but I think the benefits would be very clear.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
I wanted to use my final comments last night, and my final words here, to thank so many people that have both made my experience incredible and have contributed so much to this school district. I can’t begin to do justice to all of them, but I will highlight a few:

  • Dr. Baker – I’m very proud to have been on the team that hired our fabulous Superintendent, and it has been a distinct pleasure working with him and learning from him. His impact on our young people has been immeasurable.
  • District Office Team – I want to thank all of the folks who work in the district office, many of whom work incredibly hard and accomplish so much yet much of it is invisible to the community. I want to give a particular shout out to Mary Jude Doerpinghaus, Robert Porter, and Tom Keating, the senior folks at the district office with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working – they all are true thought leaders and innovators.
  • School Staffs –We’ve been fortunate to have great staffs at each of our sites. Our principals’ leadership has been crucial for our schools, and I want to thank all of our teachers who devote their lives to educating children and also thank our secretaries, counselors, librarians, para-educators, and custodians.
  • My Board Colleagues – Thanks to my board colleagues — Adam Rak, Kathleen Farley, Carol Elliott, and Nicole Bergeron — for all of their time, effort, and true mindfulness in serving. I have enjoyed working with them all, and I have appreciated how they are all honest and selfless servants for our children and our community. I also want to thank and acknowledge board members I’ve worked with in the past, including dedicated folks like Mark Olbert, Carrie Du Bois, and Tom Quiggle. I also want to thank Matt Kowitt, who has served for so many years as president of the Governing Council of Charter Learning Center and has been such a great partner and leader.
  • Other Elected Officials – Thanks to our city council members as well as our state legislators, past and present, who have represented this area well and have been big supporters of public education – keep up the fight! Also for all of the unselfish work they do on behalf of children, I wanted to thank so many of the other school board members in the County with whom I’ve worked on the San Mateo County School Boards Association – we have all learned a lot from each other!
  • Parents – Of course, San Carlos is the success it is in large part due to the amazingly dedicated parents who volunteer their time and donate their money to support all of our kids – I am so especially pleased how SCEF continually grows to remain such a powerful force in allowing this district to fulfill its mission – thank you to all of the folks who have been part of this and have worked so hard over all of these years.
  • Friends and Supporters – thanks to all of my friends and community members who, over the years, have voted for me, supported me, and have been confidants and sounding boards.
  • My Family – Last but certainly not least, I want to thank my family for their amazing support. My kids have grown up knowing how important it is to be involved in their community, and they have been my biggest cheerleaders. Of course, the biggest thanks goes to my wonderful wife Sara, who not only had to deal with my time commitments but also was there for me in every way possible through the celebrations and the frustrations. She is my best friend and best advisor, and she would always tell me when she thought I was right and when I was wrong. She also found time to be an incredible volunteer at our schools in her own right. I look forward to spending some Thursday night date nights with her!

Thank you all again for the amazing opportunity to play this part in our incredible village.

An Amazing Eight Years

As we are now just a little over two weeks away from the end of my time on the San Carlos School District Board, it seems like a good time to reflect on all of the things that have happened over these last eight years and the many accomplishments of the District. To be clear, these are not my accomplishments — they were the result of so much hard work by so many people, including SCSD employees, parents, other community members, and the board. I felt it important to summarize it as best I could given how easy it would be to forget all that has gone on — even in looking back at old agendas and files, I’ve no doubt missed many things, but hopefully the following summary will give a sense of the scope.

Personnel
At the end of the day, we’re a service organization. And as such, our success is so dependent upon the quality of the people in the organization. And in this respect, the District has done a great job of hiring and retaining (and in many cases, bringing back) folks at all levels who are all frankly not paid what their worth, but understand the importance of what they’re doing and recognize that if you’re going to take on this mission as your life’s work, San Carlos is a pretty good place to do that. Some specific accomplishments of note include:

  • Hiring Dr. Baker – no doubt the strongest Superintendent that San Carlos has had in decades (if ever), and also one who has been the envy of so many of my school board colleagues in other districts.
  • Serious Upgrade to District Office Team – We have such a strong team in the district office, and we owe so much of the progress of this district to them – folks like Mary Jude Doerpinghaus, Robert Porter, Tom Keating, and of course so many others.
  • Hired (and Retained) Great Principals, Teachers, and Classified staff – As a service organization, we have great leaders at each of the schools in the form of our principals and vice principals. I also think that we’ve created an environment that although never perfect, makes San Carlos a great place to work for teachers and other staff members. There are so many amazing teachers and classified staff that do the tireless work – for little money – every day because they believe in the mission of serving all of our children.

Vision and Strategy

  • Completion of our Strategic Plan – when people ask what I’m most proud of during my tenure, it is this – nothing short of groundbreaking, it has already become a model for so many other school districts. It has really put San Carlos “on the map” in the county and around the state for our innovative approach – it’s been so great to witness our team being asked to speak at events to spread the word. And more importantly, it is incredible how our teachers and administrators have owned it and used it a real guidepost for our growth as a district – it is no mere shelfware.
  • Focus on Equity and being One Integrated District – We have done such a great job creating and preserving equity among our schools and our student pathways – more so than perhaps anywhere else in the county. One of things that is largely unknown by the new generation of parents is that when my kids started in school in this district, we weren’t really a cohesive district. A friend of mine years back remarked that “San Carlos used to be seven schools in a community, but it has become a community of seven schools.” This is no minor distinction – when we started, our school communities were much more isolated and there was little cooperation – we learned that by working together we could make the pie much bigger for all – both in terms of programs and in terms of financial resources. We take that for granted today, but we must remember it took a lot of work to get there, and it requires diligence going forward to ensure we keep that.

Finance

  • Strong Financial Stewardship – We faced the worst economic downturn for CA public schools since the Great Depression and took prudent steps to leverage our reserves, and where we had to make cuts, have a thorough community process and discussion to minimize their impact. After many years of hard work we now have a solid budget with no deficit spending.
  • Incredible Increase in Local Funding – We passed three parcel taxes and one bond measure; we expanded our incredible relationship with SCEF to consistently increase financial support for our schools, launched our enterprise programs for additional sources of local revenue, and finally had a successful settlement of RDA money owed to the district
  • Focus on Taxpayers – We refinanced older bond measures on multiple occasions to save taxpayers millions of dollars
  • Improved Financial Reporting Systems – although school finances are incredibly complex and accounting requirements byzantine at best, the way we present our financial assumptions, projections, and overall health has been made so much more transparent

Facilities
We first have to recognize the incredible and continual increase in enrollment that we have had. In my first year on the board, we had a total enrollment of 2,877. This year have approximately 3,545 K-8 students. Even then so many of us said our schools were too crowded, and it seemed inevitable at that time that we would need to expand our facilities. Obviously this is a high-class problem as more and more families seek to move to San Carlos at least in part due to the reputation of the schools.

  • Finalized modernization with Measure E bond money – including lots of work at Tierra Linda as well as upgrades at every elementary school.
  • Added capacity at Tierra Linda – including the new modular classrooms
  • Completed Facilities Master Plan – which included the ingenious plan for our new Upper Elementary Schools
  • Purchased New District Office – a facility that has really been leveraged well for so many district functions, including teacher professional development
  • New Central Middle School – what a wonderful new facility that replaced a school that had been largely neglected for decades
  • Heather MU Room – a project that finally got done after it got dropped off the plans years ago
  • Arroyo, Tierra Linda, CLC, and Dartmouth School Plans – all to be completed over the next two years

Policies
There have been innumerable updates to policies, and as you know, it’s a never-ending process. However, we made some significant and impactful updates in the last eight years, including:

  • Boundary Changes – what an amazing example of an inclusive community-based process that addressed a clear need and had an immediate impact
  • New Enrollment Policy – related to the above, clarifying preference for siblings, children of employees, and folks who in live in San Carlos but outside of SCSD boundaries
  • New Sustainability Policy and Related Initiatives
  • New Wellness Policy and Related Initiatives
  • Stopped Practice of Vendors (e.g. photographers) Giving Commissions to Schools – and jacking up the price to families
  • Revised Practice of Charging Students Fees for Mandatory Items
  • New Facility Naming Policy – bold, progressive, and unique
  • Updates to Dozens of Other Significant Policies – including bullying and harassment, use of school facilities, animals in schools, safety, fundraising and gifts, technology policies, allergy policy, and a whole lot more. Many of these may seem minor, but they actually have a real and important impact on how our schools functions as well as the well being of our students.

Teaching & Curriculum

  • Successful Implementation of Common Core and SBAC
  • Embracing of the New LCAP Requirements – very thoughtful and relevant use of the LCAP meeting statutory requirements but also tying to our larger Strategic Plan and goals
  • Thoughtful and Thorough Discussions and Plan for Math Pathways
  • Expanded Elective Offerings – including innovative partnerships with groups such as SCCT – this is an area where I know we’ll see more to come
  • Dramatically Increased Quality and Volume of Teacher Professional Development
  • Successful Implementation of Transitional Kindergarten
  • Staff Salary Increases – although this has been one of the most difficult areas to address given how little we are funded as a district, I am glad we were always able to do what we could and now have a multi-year agreement to give our staff some predictability and shift our discussions to other strategic areas
  • Much More Robust Data – information from teachers, students, and parents about engagement in school and other measures of school climate and health
  • Dashboard – finally have an outline for a District-wide dashboard of multiple measures of student success and District health – this is an area I definitely look forward to seeing grow over the next couple of years

Special Education
It is easy to forget how incredibly far we have come in the improvement of our Special Education program since I started on the board. This is due to some incredible work by District staff to focus on serving each kid, honoring the process, and doing the day-to-day blocking and tackling to deliver an incredibly complex and varied program. When I started, this was probably one the weakest spots for the Districts, and now we have an enviable program and track record, as evidenced by:

  • A First-class Team
  • Reducing Needs for Services – by early intervention
  • More Success for Students Being Served
  • Lowering Costs – by insourcing and outsourcing services as appropriate, as well as by an incredible reduction in lawsuits against the district

Communications
Communications is one of those areas that can be perennially improved, and is often one of the biggest criticisms of the District. I’m excited to see a renewed emphasis on this for the coming year. It remains a challenge given that, by design, our core constituents turn over every year, as well as the fact that it’s human nature to only pay attention when you hear something you think is amiss. That said, older parents will agree that we have continually improved district communications, including an incredible increase in the volume and breadth of touch points, including:

  • The New “Accordion” Process – to ensure engagement by staff and parents and school site, administrators, and the board
  • More Frequent and Relevant E-mails
  • More Community Meetings
  • Improved Website with More Frequent Blog Updates
  • Board Alerts Before Meetings and Board Briefs after Meetings
  • Growth of Facebook and Twitter Presence

Community
We have in so many ways formed a tighter partnership between the district and the larger community, including:

  • Moving Board Agendas Online
  • Videotaping Board Meetings – and making those available online
  • Fundraising and Gift Coordination – Much improved coordination among SCEF, PTAs, and district regarding fundraising and gifts
  • Improved Relationship with City – despite our differences and hiccups at times, we have as tight of a relationship as ever with the City of San Carlos in areas of facilities, programs, and traffic/safety
  • Improved Relationship with CLC – although this has always been a strong relationship compared to that between most other districts and charter schools in the state, we have strengthened our working relationship, better clarified responsibilities, and worked with them to successfully transition them to independent legal status
  • Improved Safe Routes to School Activities
  • Leadership in the Region – Many of us have been involved in regional projects, including the Big Lift, San Mateo County School Boards Association, as well as serving as advisors to some of our state legislators. I encourage our new Board members to get involved this way as well

Thanks to all San Carlans for supporting our schools and for all of the great work we have been able to do together. I welcome all to attend my last board meeting on December 3rd to help celebrate all of this with me!

Congratulations to our new School Board Members

Eirene Chen and Michelle Nayfack handily won election to the Governing Board of the San Carlos School District, so they will be replacing me and Adam Rak. The official transition occurs on the first Friday in December, which will be December 4th. That makes December 3rd as my last school board meeting. (Unlike City Council, there is no official swearing in ceremony as the candidates are already sworn in when they file their paperwork to fun…so Eirene and Michelle will just be part of the School Board on December 4th and will attend their first meeting on December 17th unless there is a special meeting earlier).

Neil Layton also ran a good race, and I encourage him to stay involved and consider running in the next election cycle in two years.

Congratulations to Eirene and Michelle, as well as many of the local school board candidates who won election last night. You can see the full results here: https://www.shapethefuture.org/elections/results/2015/nov/web/.

What are the Big Lessons?

As I have been winding up my tenure on the San Carlos School District board, I have been asked by a number of friends and colleagues what I have learned about governing a school district and about local governance in general. So, upon the eve of this election day where we will elect two new school board members (beginning a period of one month where I will officially be a lame duck), I thought it appropriate to share some thoughts on the big takeaways from my experience. Hopefully it will be interesting and instructive to others who choose to serve as well as all members of our community.

You can download the white paper here: http://rosenblatt.org/blog/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/The-Big-Lessons.pdf

If you don’t feel like reading the whole thing, here’s a list of the lessons if you’re curious about a particular one:
1 – Avoid the Temptation of Reductionism
2 – Remember Whom You’re Representing
3 – You Don’t Need to Act Like a Politician
4 – Haters Gonna Hate…
5 – Understand the Value (and Limitation) of Data
6 – See Around Corners
7 – Nothing (and No One) is “Away from the Classroom”
8 – It’s All About That Bass (and Treble)
9 – Risk and Change Must be the New Normal!
10 – We Can Make a Larger Impact
11 – Celebrate!

During my lame duck period, I will have additional reflections on what the District has accomplished over these last eight years as well as send out some acknowledgements. I will also give some reflections at my last board meeting on December 3rd.