Sunday, October 25, 2009

VSD Board Candidates - A review

Most of the articles on this blog so far have been on global, national or state level issues. But since the local schools are where my kids get educated, I decided to drill down to my own district in Vancouver, and talk to some of the candidates. In this highly unscientific interview, I asked each one some standard questions. But mostly, it was an opportunity for me to get to know them as people. After all, they have come forward to volunteer their time and energy as the representatives of the parents, and by proxy the students, of the district. At times like these when money is scarce and student performance is lagging, I thought my blog can add some value to the decision making process of the voters.

Now, for the candidates themselves. For Position 2, we have Mark Stoker(Incumbent) and Chris Peppers, and for Position 3, two newcomers Nelson Holmberg and Kathy Gillespie. In general, the candidates all came across as passionate about something, which I think is good. All of them had a long history with Vancouver. Each one has a website that gives their detailed positions on issues they care about. I have attached URLs for each under the summary.

First, let me articulate what I consider to be my priorities, and then compare them to the candidates'. I believe the top priority and the prime directive of any board member should be student achievement. The data from the district screams lagging math and science scores, widening achievement gap, and huge dropout rates. If our schools are the only public institutions chartered with providing education, and if they are not meeting the charter, it automatically becomes the #1 issue in my mind. Everything else sort of falls out of this prime directive. Secondly, I wanted to see if anyone cared about STEM - Science, Math, Engineering and Mathematics. This has been clearly articulated as a priority by Arne Duncan, the national education secretary, and international competitive data on our school kid's STEM ability is now near the bottom of the list. Third, I wanted our candidates to demand more transparency and accountability in the dealings of the district. As one of the candidates pointed out, VSD meetings happen too early in the day for most parents to attend, they are not televised or archived on line for everyone to see, and the written minutes are not available for public viewing. What's up with that? Then there are issues that I do not consider as priorities. First is the fixation that more money will fix everything, in spite of data that show it does not. I would like the new board to address unnecessary spending first.

So moving right along, my review here is going to go after what they thought were their top three priorities, and my general impression of them as a candidate.

Position 2 - Mark Stoker (incumbent) - Top 3 issues 1. The Levy 2. Achievement Gap 3. Graduation Rate. On the whole, I found Mark to be pleasant and approachable. I was happy to see achievement related issues make it to the top three - both achievement gap as well as graduation rate made it. The levy is something that would have been an appropriate issue during good times, but I believe these are the times to figure out how to do more with less. I thought his second and third priorities were right on the money. Also on the plus side, he is the more experienced candidate for the race.

Position 2 - Chris Peppers (challenger) - Top 3 issues 1. Transparency of board operations 2. Community engagement 3. Accountability. Chris was probably the most curious of the four, asking for inputs and data where he felt he did not understand something. I think this is a good trait. However, studnet achievement was only mentioned as a part of transparency. While I agree that the line items on his priority list are important, I think they will automatically fall out of making student achievement the prime directive.

Position 3 - Kathy Gillespie - Top 3 issues 1. Academic achievement 2. A budget that is aligned to academic acheivement 3. Connect academics with career goals - esp. high schoolers. I think Kathy's first two priorities were right along mine. She also mentioned STEM as part of her first priority, which I consider a plus for her. She has a lot of volunteer experience in schools, and as a former newspaper editor, she can be an effective communicator.

Position 4 - Nelson Holmberg - Top 3 issues 1. Funding 2. Safety and Security in Schools 3. Realistic Learning Standards. The only priority that somewhat aligned with student achievement was the last one. Although Nelson was very passionate about transparency and accountability in his conversation, somehow it did not make his top 3. He also believed in bringing new "out of the box" thinking into the board, which I thought was refreshing.

So, in summary, if I look at alignment to my own set of priotities, the edge goes to Mark Stoker and Kathy Gillespie. However, with that comes the challege of what is not on their list - Accountabily and Transparency in board operations. I hope they put this on their list to address, as we will need the entire community to pull us through the education crisis. But no matter who wins, I don't expect the school board to perform dramatically better than the last one. I would love to be proven wrong, though.

Finally, I would urge the voters to make their own priority lists, and compare them to those of the candidates', and also study the candidate's web sites.

Friday, October 23, 2009

How To Reach A Market Of 3 Billion Poor

Poor and market? Isn't that an oxymoron? Aren't the poor just supposed to live on the charity of others? And isn't the business of selling to them considered suicide?

Well, this blog is a slight diversion before my planned review of Vancouver School District Board candidates. Sort of like an appetizer. But to see the connection, it takes careful connecting of the dots.

I will start with a short story I used to hear from my best friend in college. There was once a private school for the rich, where only the country club crowd sent their kids. But the teachers wanted to show that these children understood the plight of the poor. So they asked them to write an essay to describe a poor family. One little girl wrote "Once upon a time, there was a very poor family. The father was poor, the mother was poor, the children were poor, the butler was poor, the chauffeur was poor, the gardner was poor, the maids were poor....". Well, you get the idea. The "poor" girl, and many like her, had absolutely no concept of poverty.

One of the popular images of the poor is that they are always looking for a handout, living by the good graces of the wealthy. One person from Bangladesh proved them wrong. He is Mohammad Yunus, the winner of the Nobel Peace prize. Now, if you think our President's preemptive award was a long shot, consider this - Mr. Yunus was not a peacenik. He did not broker any agreements between warring nations or religions. He did not take care of sick and dying lepers in the streets of Calcutta. He is a banker and an economist by profession. Why did he not get his Nobel Prize for Economics instead? Was the Nobel committee bonkers to give him the award? I think not. If I recall their rationale correctly, they gave it to him because his actions of empowering the poor to be financially independent and self sufficient were a greater contributor to world peace than someone brokering a peace agreement between two warring factions, only to see it flare up a few years later.

So, now the question comes up - what exactly did he do? First, he started with one of the poorest economies of the world - Bangladesh. Their per capita GDP is about $500 per year, a pittance compared to the US at about $47,000 per year. Second, most of the economy of Bangladesh is still rural and agrarian. The urban employment model has still not reached the masses. Third, the people who run the agrarian economy were self employed farmers and their families. The men do most of the manual labor, the women do the housework and sometimes weave baskets for extra cash. Unfortunately, the people who lent them money to buy the raw materials were unscrupulous loan sharks, which left them with very little after they sold their wares. Enter Mr. Yunus. He set up a new private banking institution called "Grameen Bank" (translates to "Rural Bank" from Bengali). His bankers did not sit in posh, air conditioned buildings waiting for business to come to them. They rode their bicycles from town to town, squatting on raw dirt to do business with housewives who wanted to borrow money, as little as $10 at a time. Yunus somehow must have intuitively felt that the empowered women would return his capital with the above market interest he charged. After all, he was not doing this for charity. He was a businessman. He did not have any market research, because there was none. Even if he paid someone to do it, they would have walked away, thinking he was nuts.

But no one could argue with the results. His on-time capital recovery rate is over 98%, and over 90% of its customers are women. The bank has grown to almost $100 million in revenue, an astonishing sum for a poor country. His model is now being emulated in other Asian nations and in Africa. At the bottom of all this is the faith that everyone has the ability to earn a dignified living, if only the system would allow it. And only someone who lived in that environment could see value in such an enterprise.

Now, you must be wondering - what is the point of all this? Well, I believe that the "New World Order" and the new buzz phrase "21st Century Economy" is going be defined by those who see gold in dirt. There are a lot more people below the poverty level in this world than there are rich. And the traditionally rich, developed economies are aging fast. Even China is aging faster than the other nations in Asia, sans Japan and Korea. And the products that have received a lot of attention lately for sheer value (the Tata Nano, the $2500 "real" car, for example), have come from industrialists and entrepreneurs who saw something no other conventional businessman did. The opportunity that lay behind empowering the poor. And there are products following from other established as well as smaller companies, like a $70 battery powered refrigerator for remote locations. And there are more on the way. Is this profitable? You betcha! Does it improve the standard of living of the dirt poor? Undoubtedly. This is the only scenario I have seen that would make both Adam Smith and Carl Marx happy. Is this a "win-win" scenario or what?

The challenge lies in how we train our young. Not only will they need sharp minds, great math and science skills, prodigious knowledge of history and literature, they will need to learn to empathize with those who need the most support - not by giving them a handout, but by offering a holding hand. To teach them how to fish, not just give them fish. Let them feel that they do have the power to control their own destinies. I read the other day that Princeton university is now offering all their freshmen a chance to live abroad for a year before coming back to their sophomore year. Bravo! We need more universities like that. Then we won't have sheltered, rich school kids writing absurd essays about the poor.

"The meek shall inherit the earth" - J. Christ