Personalization vs. Digitalization: A Useful Construct for Viewing “Disruption”

September 1, 2015 Leave a comment

It is unfortunate that the term “disruption” has been firmly linked with the for-profit education firms that have privatized public education, because Clay Christensen, who coined the term” did not see intend to link “disruption” with “profit” or “privatization”.

In Julia Freedland’s post, “Rethink Funding for Quality Learning“, which appeared in WISE Ed Review a few days ago, she contrasts “personalization” (another term expropriated by profiteers) and  “digitalization”. Personalization measures and targets students’ needs and strengths: it is a means of ensuring students attain mastery in skills they want and need to fulfill their unique individual goals. Digitization computerizes the existing factory model of education and uses traditional standardized tests to measure learning. As Freedland writes:

Some online tools may leverage technology to drive down the cost of delivering instruction by simply digitizing the traditional, factory-based model of education. For example, if traditional students merely watch recordings of lectures but are not assessed for understanding in a different manner, the traditional classroom—and its limited ability to support individual student’s needs—will remain intact.

Freedland is not averse to seeking private investments to leverage the transformative change Clay Christensen envisioned when he wrote Disrupting Education… but she IS concerned about those seeking quick returns on they investment:

…(W)e… need savvy investors—in the VC and philanthropic communities—to provide patient capital to support disruptive innovations in education. Disruptive innovations do not compete in the traditional market, but instead target pockets of nonconsumption and the low end of the market. By definition, these disruptive markets are small and harder to estimate at the outset. Firms pursuing a disruptive strategy may struggle to attract investors because as disruptors, they tend to get their starts in these smaller markets. However, disruptive innovations will be vital to moving toward a system that leverages technology to personalize—rather than merely digitize—education. Investors, therefore, should evaluate investments in disruptive innovations based on companies’ ability to make a profit in these distinct markets (i.e., to create a viable, cost-effective product within an albeit small market) rather than to grow quickly right off the bat. VC and philanthropic portfolios need not be dedicated entirely to disruptive innovations; however, investors should be aware of the possibility that they will need to use different metrics to assess sustaining versus disruptive opportunities in the EdTech space.

Freedland, unlike, say, Bill Gates, realizes that it will take time to introduce, field test, and fully implement the changes in instruction, measurement, and public support needed to transform public education.

How can these kids of changes be facilitated by public policy? Freedland suggests that state funding mechanisms may hold the key, and cites NH’s means of funding as the direction more states should head:

A better funding system would reward successfully driving individual student performance among both schools and EdTech providers. Take, for example, the manner in which the state of New Hampshire funds the Virtual Learning Academy Charter School, a statewide source for online learning opportunities. Because New Hampshire is one of few states to have gone fully competency-based, VLACS’s instructional model and funding model are contingent on students advancing—and being funded—only upon demonstrating mastery.

Freedland provides a chart that illustrates how VLACS receives funding based on the extent to which each student achieves mastery the content. VLACS received 30% funding for a student who masters 30% of their objectives and 100% for a student who masters all the objectives. This mechanism shifts the funding incentives away from enrollment data and moves it toward mastery data: away from inputs that are easily measured but unimportant to learning outputs that are more difficult to measure but far more important. In examining the means of funding disruptive change, Freedland asserts that both the private and public sector need to change their thinking:

In short, to drive toward high-quality personalized learning, we need to rethink both private and public funding streams. This will require more patient capital, more hard-nosed accountability based on outcomes, and a commitment to creating an education system in which the expanding EdTech market will grow with student outcomes as a priority. 

And a by-product of this kind of funding will be the abandonment of the existing grade groupings based on age and the institution of a means of providing each and every student with the support of a caring adult who monitors their progress toward the attainment of a personalized learning plan they develop in coordination with their parents and school.

Rethinking Work…Especially Teaching

August 31, 2015 Leave a comment

In yesterday’s NYTimes Barry Schwartz article, “Rethinking Work”, described how Adam Smith’s assumptions about workers and the importance of efficiency serve as the basis for work as we know it over two centuries later. The article suggests the need for us to reconsider the way we define work in our culture and includes these paragraph:

The transformation I have in mind goes something like this: You enter an occupation with a variety of aspirations aside from receiving your pay. But then you discover that your work is structured so that most of those aspirations will be unmet. Maybe you’re a call center employee who wants to help customers solve their problems — but you find out that all that matters is how quickly you terminate each call. Or you’re a teacher who wants to educate kids — but you discover that only their test scores matter. Or you’re a corporate lawyer who wants to serve his client with care and professionalism — but you learn that racking up billable hours is all that really counts.

Pretty soon, you lose your lofty aspirations. And over time, later generations don’t even develop the lofty aspirations in the first place. Compensation becomes the measure of all that is possible from work. When employees negotiate, they negotiate for improved compensation, since nothing else is on the table. And when this goes on long enough, we become just the kind of creatures that Adam Smith thought we always were. (Even Smith, in one passage, seemed to acknowledge this possibility, noting that mindless, routinized work typically made people “stupid and ignorant.”)

…How can we do this? By giving employees more of a say in how they do their jobs. By making sure we offer them opportunities to learn and grow. And by encouraging them to suggest improvements to the work process and listening to what they say.

Needless to say this resonated with me as one who deplores the “reform” movement that reduces he measurement of teaching to a single test score measuring skills that measure student performance on material provided in “teacher proof” curriculum guides, skills that were imposed without the direct involvement of teachers and whose suggestions and ideas are dismissed as unimportant.

For those politicians and businessmen who value efficiency over humanity, their spreadsheet analyses over the observations in classrooms, their belief that money is the primary motivator for employees, and their desire for saving money over improving the lives of children and their employees, the aspirations of teachers are unimportant…. and the consequence is that the routinized work they are creating in the classrooms will not appeal to those with creativity and intelligence.

NEPC: A Balanced Review of NOLA Changes

August 30, 2015 Leave a comment

wgersen:

Diane Ravitch and the National Education Policy Center have offered a counterweight to the politicians and mainstream media who repeat the “feel good” story about how NOLA schools are evidence of the rebirth of the city. 50% unemployment and poverty rates are hardly evidence of a renaissance.

Originally posted on Diane Ravitch's blog:

All day long, I have posted about the free-market reform of the schools in New Orleans. I have done so because the mainstream media has been touting the success of privatization for almost ten years. States and districts have declared their intention to copy the New Orleans model, believing it was a great success. I just heard a CNN news report stating that the elimination of public schools was controversial, but test scores are up, and the city is investing in its children’s futures. The same report said that 50% of black men are unemployed and 50% of black children live in poverty.

As this report from the National Education Policy Center shows, the test score gains have disproportionately benefited the most advantaged students.

The rhetoric of corporate reform is always about “saving poor black kids.” In New Orleans, they have not yet been saved.

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Common Core Debate Should be a Sideshow and NOT the Main Attraction

August 29, 2015 Leave a comment

Natalie Wexler wrote an op-ed column in yesterday’s NYTimes advocating that teachers and schools focus on teaching E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge, which focusses on facts students should learn by a particular age instead of the bright new Common Core, which focusses more on skills students should learn by a particular age. As the title of this blog post indicates, this whole debate on WHAT we teach should be a sideshow!

Three years ago I wrote a post titled “Learning is Constant, Time is the Variable” that described the basis for advocating a complete change to the way schools are organized. Instead of batching children into age based on their age and holding schools accountable for when students master skills and gain knowledge, we should batch students by skills learned and knowledge acquired regardless of their age. This would have been a daunting (but not impossible) task three decades ago when Ron Edmunds suggested it, but with today’s technological advances it can and should be done.

One state, Vermont, is implementing a plan that might help break this mold. In December 2013 the State Board adopted a set of Education Quality Standards that includes one element that has the potential to break the mold of the factory school. Beginning this school year all seventh grade students need to develop a Personalized Learning Plan that defines “…the scope and rigor of academic and experiential opportunities necessary for the student to successfully complete secondary school and attain college and career readiness.” This will not be a one-size-fits-all plan that will be measured by standardized tests administered in grades 7, 8, and 11 but a plan that is uniquely tailored to each student. The plan is intended to be reviewed annually and ideally could drive the “curriculum” offered at the secondary level.

Students are not pieces of clay to be molded into pre-determined figurines defined by “standards”… and whether those standards are skill-based or knowledge based is beside the point. Students are unique individuals who have unique and varied talents and unique and varied aspirations. The faster we move away from standards and move toward Personalized Learning Plans the better off we will be… and the better off our children in schools will be.

Gene Glass, Explains His Decision to Stop Being a “Measurement Specialist”

August 28, 2015 Leave a comment

In his own blog post, that was picked up by Diane Ravtich and Naked Capitalism, Arizona State professor Gene V. Glass explains why he no longer wants to be referred to as a “measurement specialist”… an in doing so gives a history of education measurement over the past 50 years. The post  is full of revelations from a statistician who witnessed the corruption of testing. After getting his doctorate from University of Illinois, Glass worked for several years trying successfully to devise tests that would help teachers assess students based on the student’s learning style. This paragraph describes what happened next:

Around 1980, I served for a time on the committee that made most of the important decisions about the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The project was under increasing pressure to “grade” the NAEP results: Pass/Fail; A/B/C/D/F; Advanced/Proficient/Basic. Our committee held firm: such grading was purely arbitrary, and worse, would only be used politically.The contract was eventually taken from our organization and given to another that promised it could give the nation a grade, free of politics. It couldn’t.

It was around 1980 that politics and testing began to intertwine… and their relationship to the “decline” in American schools was clear to Glass:

The degrading of public education has involved impugning its effectiveness, cutting its budget, and busting its unions. Educational measurement has been the perfect tool for accomplishing all three: cheap and scientific looking.

International tests have purported to prove that America’s schools are inefficient or run by lazy incompetents. Paper-and-pencil tests seemingly show that kids in private schools – funded by parents – are smarter than kids in public schools. We’ll get to the top, so the story goes, if we test a teacher’s students in September and June and fire that teacher if the gains aren’t great enough.

Eventually, the “…cronyism between corporations and politicians” disgusted Glass so much he’s decided to change his teaching assignments:

When measurement became the instrument of accountability, testing companies prospered and schools suffered. I have watched this happen for several years now. I have slowly withdrawn my intellectual commitment to the field of measurement. Recently I asked my dean to switch my affiliation from the measurement program to the policy program. I am no longer comfortable being associated with the discipline of educational measurement.

Many veteran educators I know share Glass’ disdain for the direction schools have headed and feel that the mission of education has changed for the worse…. and in some cases they have not only withdrawn their intellectual commitment to public schools but also withdrawn their political commitment to their improvement. In the coming months those of us who believe education is the best means for eliminating the vicious cycle of poverty need to work to get officials who support the mission of public education elected to offices in all levels of the government.

Newark’s Failed Efforts at Reform Revealed in “The Prize”

August 27, 2015 Leave a comment

The NYTimes review of Dale Russakov’s new book, The Prize, describes the failed effort of the Newark Public Schools to take full advantage of a $100,000,000 donation from Facebook founder and billionaire Mark Zuckerberg. These two paragraphs from the review, written by Alex Kotlowitz, provide a good synopsis of the idea behind Zuckerberg’s gift and why it quickly headed south:

When Zuckerberg declared his grant, the agenda was pretty clear: Turn the Newark schools around in five years and make it a national model. But from the get-go, there seemed little agreement as to how best to proceed. More than anything, Christie wanted to break the hold of the entrenched teachers’ unions. Booker wanted more charter schools. Zuckerberg wanted to raise the status of teachers and to reward teaching that improved students’ performance.

Their five-year plan gets off to a rocky start. Initial funds go to a bevy of consultants, most of them white, most of them well connected, some of whom are getting paid $1,000 a day. One educator labels them the “school failure industry.” Moreover, it quickly becomes apparent that this is a top-down effort, with politicians and the well-to-do setting the agenda. When Booker sets up a local foundation to handle Zuckerberg’s gift, the seats on the board go only to donors of at least $5 million. You can begin to see where this story’s headed. Booker shows more interest in his own political career than he does in running his city. Christie hires an ideologue as his point person on the Newark schools. And Zuckerberg, a newcomer to philanthropy, seems frustrated by the inability to negotiate a union contract that would quickly raise the salaries of promising young teachers and pay substantial merit bonuses for high performers.

I’ve blogged on Mark Zuckerberg’s largesse in Newark on several occasions, lamenting the fact that the $100,000,000 donation could have done much more for the city and schools had it been used to renovate or replace decrepit schools or provide access to broadband in large swaths of the community, and bemoaning his notion of using the funds to “reward teachers” since negotiated pay scales require that incorporate “merit pay” require assurances of continued funding. But one point that Rusakoff makes warrants emphasis:

Public education is the bedrock of democracy — and yet when it comes to repairing our schools the democratic process is too often ignored. What ultimately derails this grand experiment is the unwillingness of the reformers to include parents and teachers in shaping the reforms.

And why is the democratic process ignored? Because the “reformers” like Zuckerberg are used to operating in a world where they control things without pesky elected boards and opportunistic politicians like Christie and Booker want to make a splash, reward their donors, and advance to the next level of government. In the meantime, the three major players in this drama, Booker, Christie, and Zuckerberg, decided to proceed without a clearly agreed upon plan: they couldn’t even use the democratic process among themselves!

Democracy and business do not mix. Democracy requires deliberative give-and-take and business requires fast and focussed action. Democracy works best at addressing complex problems that have no clear answer. Business approaches work best addressing complicated problems that can be fixed by engineering. I, for one, was not surprised to see the $100,000,000 prize frittered away given the lack of clarity on how it should be spent. Here’s hoping that Zuckerberg’s next foray into supporting schools works better. Given this description of the project, I’m rooting for him:

…The one individual who appears changed by the experience is, somewhat surprisingly, Zuckerberg. Last year, along with his wife, Priscilla Chan, who as a pediatric intern cared for underserved children around San Francisco, Zuckerberg announced a gift of $120 million in grants to high-poverty schools in the Bay Area. This time, though, they declared their intent to include parents and teachers in the planning process. But more to the point, a key component to their grants includes building “a web of support for students,” everything from medical to mental health care. Zuckerberg came to recognize that school reform alone isn’t enough, that if we’re going to make a difference in the classroom, we also need to make a difference in the lives of these children, many of whom struggle against the debilitating effects of poverty and trauma. Here is where this story ends — but also where the next story begins.

Good luck!

NYTimes Column Illustrates Vouchers’ Subtle Shortcomings

August 26, 2015 Leave a comment

Brittany Bronson’s op ed column in today’s NYTimes points out the many flaws with the voucher legislation passed recently in her home state of Nevada. But unlike many of the earlier columns I’ve read on this topic, which tend to focus on some of the obvious problems (e.g. giving $5,000/year to parents who are already paying for private school education and home schooling using computer-assisted-learning modules), Ms. Bronson digs deeper, noting the link between the working conditions parents in poverty face as compared to those faced by typical middle class parents. She writes:

In Nevada, about one in four children live in poverty, not because their schools have failed them, but because their parents juggle multiple jobs on a stagnant minimum wage, have little job security and are denied paid time off.

These economic challenges present direct conflicts with the type of parental involvement and support that are necessary for quality education. Erratic and unpredictable work hours make it difficult to organize transportation to and from school and after-school child care. Long workdays limit parents’ ability to ensure that children’s academic responsibilities outside of school are being met. Low wages without benefits make it impossible to afford enriching activities outside the classroom or quality health care that plays a crucial role in academic success.

Ms. Bronson’s analysis of the impact of the “on-demand” workplace and parent engagement is cogent and long overdue. Those who want to find comfort in the fact that charter schools outperform neighborhood schools often overlook the fact that the enrollment process to get into a charter school requires the ability for the parent to make and keep appointments at the school they wish their child to attend or take time off from work to wait in line to register. A parent working unpredictable part-time hours whose continued employment is contingent on showing up for work whenever their employer needs them cannot, in many cases, keep an appointment AND keep their job. Those of us who worked predictable hours in full time jobs have trouble grasping how challenging it is to raise children with the schedules many parents face today.

One other point Ms. Bronson emphasizes is one made by the Anna E. Casey Foundation:

The Anne E. Casey Foundation argues that improving the well-being of children in poverty requires a two-generation approach, meaning you can’t improve the situation for children without addressing the economic realities of their parents. Its 2015 report states that, “Boosting low family income, especially early in a child’s life, can have lasting positive effects on cognitive development, health, and academic achievement.”

As I have often lamented in this blog, politicians and taxpayers want a cheap, fast, and simple solution– like vouchers— to a costly, slow, and complex problem– like the seemingly intractable cycle of poverty. If we want to break the vicious cycle of poverty, we need to show compassion for those trapped in its web, be willing to share some of our resources, and be patient.