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Teaching Machines On The Horizon

September 30, 2012 Leave a comment

The September 16 NYTimes Magazine featured several articles on education, including Annie Murphy Paul’s piece ominously titled “The Machines are Taking Over .  The article described how Neil Heffernan, a Teach For America washout in the late 1990s was determined to develop a computer program that would provide the kind of individualized tutoring for inner city urban kids that his fiancé provided to more affluent suburban students. As he filmed her work with students in mathematics, he quickly observed that tutoring required lots of interaction and required that the tutor pick up subtle cues from the student.

While computer programs alone were incapable of replicating that kind of interaction, when combined with facial recognition and years of research it was possible for Heffernan and his team to identify cues that indicated student boredom, frustration, and lack of concentration and, once that was recognized, offer alternative activities or problems that could get the student back on track.

Contrary to the articles title, I believe that machines will NEVER take over for humans, but, if they are combined with careful and targeted human interaction machines could ensure that all students learn the content. Instead of “taking over” machines could be an effective means of providing the baseline instruction— fundamental math and literacy skills– in a non-threatening, non-competitive and engaging format thereby freeing the teacher to build on those skills and offer instruction in the areas that cannot be taught with “machines”: the so-called “critical thinking skills”.

The dualistic thinking of “machines vs. humans” limits innovation in the same way that “unions vs. management” limits innovation. We need to find those areas where synergy is possible instead of areas where conflict appears and in that way move forward.

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This Just In: We’re NOT Number One in Education

September 29, 2012 Leave a comment

Truthout, a progressive blog, posted its synopsis of a recent Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report comparing the US education system to thirty other countries under the headline: Shocking Report Explodes Five Myths About American Education

Here are some “highlights” from the OECD report, using the “myth” headings:

MYTH: The US education system provides more upward mobility than other nations.

REALITY: We rank 25th out of 28 countries who track this data… “The odds that a young person in the U.S. will be in higher education if his or her parents do not have an upper secondary education are just 29 percent — one of the lowest levels among OECD countries.

MYTH: US teachers work less and get paid more.

REALITY: Only two of the 38 countries surveyed had teachers who worked more hours and our primary teachers work more than any country in the world… and in terms of pay? OECD reports: “Despite high overall levels of spending on education, teacher salaries in the U.S. compare poorly. While in most OECD countries teacher salaries tend be lower, on average, than the salaries earned by other workers with higher education, in the U.S. the difference is large, especially for teachers with minimum qualifications.”

MYTH: Big government funds higher education.

REALITY: We DO provide more government funding than nearly every country in the world for higher education… but our higher education costs so much  more that “…62 percent are from private sources. Across all OECD countries, 70 percent of expenditures on higher education come from public sources, and 30 percent are from private sources.” this is good news for banks who loan money to students to pay for these expenses but bad news for students who go into debt.

MYTH: We provide excellent pre-school education.

REALITY: Here’s our ranking: for three year-olds we’re 5th out of 36; for 4 year olds we’re 28th out of 38. Why?  “On average across OECD countries, 84 percent of pupils in early childhood education attend programmes in public schools or government-dependent private institutions, while in the U.S., 55 percent of early childhood pupils attend programmes in public schools, and 45 percent attend independent private programmes. In the U.S. the typical starting age for early childhood education is 4 years old, while in 21 other OECD countries, it is 3 years old or younger.”

MYTH: We have the highest percentage of college graduates in the world

REALITY: “The U.S. ranks 14th in the world in the percentage of 25-34 year-olds with higher education (42 percent).” 

why do we believe in these myths. Because they ARE true for affluent Americans. Kids in affluent districts

“…get plenty of early childhood education…don’t attend run-down schools… don’t run up debts in order to go to college. In fact, our elite (parents) are positioned perfectly to thrive in a global economy. They can attack public schools, teachers unions, big government and not suffer the consequences. (Affluent parents) are quite happy… to swallow the myth of American exceptionalism, even when reality shows how exceptionally bad we are at providing decent education for all of our people.

I omitted some phrases that implied the affluent parents want things this way because I don;t believe that is true. I think most parents DO believe the myth that poverty can be overcome by good teaching because it DOES happen in some rare instances and because NOT believing that myth loud require many affluent parents and communities to face the fact that they ARE advantaged, that their status is not “hard-earned”. The fact is that their status IS hard-earned even though they did have a leg up on their cohorts who were born in poverty… but the other fact is that their cohorts born into poverty started with a disadvantage that made their race a lot harder to run.

 

 

Non-Profit Charters No Different Than Public Schools

September 28, 2012 Leave a comment

A report issued by the “What Works Clearinghouse” of the Institute of  Educational Science concluded that

…on average, CMOs (Charter School Management Organizations) did not have a statistically significant impact on middle school student performance on state assessments in math, reading, science, or social studies. Similarly, there was not a statistically significant impact of CMOs on graduation rates and rates of post-secondary enrollment for high school students. However, there was substantial variation in the direction, magnitude and statistical significance of the impacts for individual CMOs.

So… there were some charters that DID outperform public schools and some that did a lot worse… but when all was said and done, charters did no better than public schools in the same environment. So why the rush to charter schools? Methinks saving taxpayers money might have something to do with cost!

The Poor Get Poorer

September 27, 2012 2 comments

The Education Policy institute issues periodic reports on the state of the working Americans. The 12th report was issued in July of 2012, and it includes some sobering statistics about our country.

  • earners at the 10th percentile in the United States are further from the U.S. median than 10th-percentile earners in peer countries are from their own countries’ respective medians
  • inequality in the United States is so severe that low-earning U.S. workers are actu- ally worse off than low-earning workers in all but seven peer countries.
  • in the late 2000s, 17.3 percent of the U.S. population lived in poverty—the highest relat- ive poverty rate among OECD peers. The U.S. relative poverty rate was nearly three times higher than that of Denmark, which had the lowest rate (6.1 percent), and about 1.8 times higher than the (unweighted) peer coun- try average of 9.6 percent.
  • In 2009, the United States had the highest rate of child poverty among peer countries, at 23.1 percent—meaning that more than one in five children in the United States lived in poverty (as measured by the share of children living in households with household income below half of median household income).
  •  the United States stands out as the country with the highest poverty rate and one of the lowest levels of social expenditure—16.2 percent of GDP, well below the vast majority of peer countries, which average 21.3 percent (unweighted).

The report has charts illustrating these realities and lots of details on the findings…. but the bottom line is that these data indicate we are not serious about providing an equal opportunity for those raised in poverty. Until we restore a more progressive tax system and direct the additional revenues to helping children being raised in poverty we will be paying lip service to equal opportunity and effectively reducing the potential income of 20%+  of our population.

 

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Venture Philanthropy, PR, and Politics

September 26, 2012 Leave a comment

“Emanuel’s Push for Charter Schools is in Full Swing”, an article in the September 24 Chicago Tribune, provides a balanced and nuanced picture of charter schools. It describes the difficulty in making valid comparisons between the performance of charter schools as compared to public schools, noting that “across-the-board comparisons are difficult because of a labyrinth of statistics and competing claims by proponents on both sides”, ultimately noting that the only valid yardstick is, alas, standardized tests:

Student test scores are the common denominator in comparing charter schools to neighborhood schools, and the results so far are not a clear victory for charters.

In standardized tests last year, Chicago’s 95 charter schools performed only slightly better than the city’s 675 public schools, according to state records. Of charter students tested, 76.9 percent met state standards, while 73.9 percent of their public school counterparts met standards.

The state’s school report card issued last fall showed that more than two dozen schools from some of the best-known local charter networks, including United Neighborhood Organization, had underperformed against the state’s standards.

The analysis in the article didn’t stop with standardized tests, though. It went on to describe some of the complications of comparing costs, emphasizing that the comparisons are ultimately a function of staffing:

Researcher David Stuit, a consultant to charters and other public schools, said the ability for charters to operate more cheaply is made possible by the charter workforce, which is typically nonunion and tends to be made up of young, entry-level teachers. They start at lower pay, and they tend to not stay in the profession very long, partly because young workers in general are more likely to switch professions in the first few years after school, Stuit said.

But, he and others added, many of them are helped toward the door by the lack of potential for income growth.

There are other cost savings with younger teachers. For those who don’t expect to make a career of teaching, the idea of a pension is rarely in their vocabulary, Stuit said.

Public pension plans are among the biggest costs in the CPS budget. But “younger people are more than happy to have a 401(k)” rather than a more expensive pension plan, Stuit said.

As noted in earlier posts, the lack of legacy costs and the prevalence of  “new hires” enables charters to operate at lower costs in much the same way that Japanese automakers were able to manufacture cars for lower costs that American automakers. The cost comparisons are even more difficult in education, though, because of the contributions made by “venture philanthropists”:

More so than traditional public schools, many charter schools also rely on private donations and grants to supplement their budgets.

Some draw support from deep-pocketed corporate backers and “venture philanthropists” such as Rauner, who has a high school in the Noble Network named for him.

Noble last year claimed about $80 million in assets, including $14 million in cash. Perspectives Charter Schools, a network with less private backing than Noble, had $11.7 million in assets, according to its CEO, Rhonda Hopps.

Noble in 2011 took almost $40 million in per-capita tuition from CPS, which covered less than 60 percent of its budget, while Perspectives relied on CPS and CPS-funneled support to cover more than 93 percent of its budget.

The private funding picture makes broad comparisons of per-pupil spending difficult.

So… what’s the difference between a “VENTURE philanthropist” and an ordinary “philanthropist”. VENTURE, is the key word: these folks are looking at public education— particularly urban public education— as a potential source of profit. The ultimate goal is to get 100% taxpayer funding to operate schools at 80% of that cost and pocketing the difference… and a 20% profit margin would make many investors exceedingly happy. And these “venture philanthropists” are getting lots of access to politicians:

Emanuel came to power in 2011 with the support of wealthy investment bankers and venture capitalists, including some conservative Republicans, who were attracted by his statements about remaking city government with the help of the private sector. The mayor has sought to woo major private investment in traditional public works projects as part of his economic development plans for Chicago and has invited business executives to help set city policy.

In addition to bolstering Emanuel’s political funds, these so-called venture philanthropists have bankrolled public relations campaigns worth millions of dollars to advance their shared interests with the mayor — especially in education reform.

I doubt that these “public relations campaigns worth millions of dollars” were spent extolling the virtues of public education… because that is clearly NOT an interest they share with the mayor. They MIGHT have been spent paying for ads that extol the virtue of charter schools using studies completed by think tanks they bankrolled… or paying for astro-turf organizations that praise the virtues of “school choice” or “vouchers”…

Unfortunately there are no organizations with “millions of dollars”  to advance the “shared interests” of public school parents… and the only organization with ANY money to spend on “public relations campaigns” are teachers unions, a group that is easy to characterize as self-interested. Idealists who support public education have an uphill battle!

The Last Word (for now) on the Chicago Strike

September 24, 2012 Leave a comment

Because I was away from the internet for the past several days, I missed many of the post-mortem stories on the Chicago teachers strike. After gleaning through several, I’ve picked two to focus on.

One article, Chicago Teachers Strike Post-Mortem: Did the Teachers Win?from the Non Profit Quarterly, detailed the shortcomings of the media coverage— which was hardly “balanced” and not sufficiently nuanced— and the unions— who failed to counter the “good-reformers-vs-bad-union-teachers” narrative. Written on September 20 by Rick Cohen, the article also underscored the diminished clout of unions and the inability of anyone to derail the teach-to-the-test mentality that is prevalent in today’s “reform” movement despite the many studies invalidating the value-added measures that are now driving teacher performance evaluations. The article also incorporated several excerpts from an ope ed piece written by Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson who reminded readers that students who come to school with empty stomachs and homes with empty bookshelves pose challenges that teachers cannot realistically overcome.

I also thought a Wall Street Journal editorial written by union leaders Randi Weingarten and Karen Lewis which Diane Ravitch posted in its entirety, spells out the teacher’s side of the story. Weingarten and Lewis outlined the key tenets of the agreement from the union’s perspective which included: the use of the additional time the board sought; the use of test data in evaluating teachers; fixing “failing” schools instead of closing them— specifically referencing the successes experienced by schools with wraparound services as opposed to schools without them;  the need to recognize the importance of morale. After stripping away the rhetoric, it seems that teachers got more group planning time, a lower emphasis on “value added measures” than the mayor sought, some kind of assurances that social services would be retained and lower class sizes would be put in place, and an acknowledgement that teaching urban students is tough work and teachers are doing the best they can.

Unfortunately, I am skeptical about the writers’ claim that because of the strike “…educators in Chicago have changed the conversation about education reform.” In the days since this editorial was published I continue to read about the virtues of vouchers, privatization, and “value added” measures. As much as I hoped the media would focus on the educational principles that were the basis for the strike, it seems that the personality clash between Emanuel and Lewis, the wage package, and the teachers’ unwillingness to accept responsibility remain the focal points of media coverage despite the efforts of progressive writers and bloggers. So the teachers got some marginal gains in compensation and planning time but no movement away from testing— only  limit in its expansion. As is often the case in strikes, neither side wins as much as they lose… To paraphrase Albert Shanker: “teachers call the school board idiots and school boards call the teachers lazy and incompetent and the public believes them both.

Changing Our Minds About the Market’s Infallibility

September 24, 2012 Leave a comment

I just finished reading a compelling essay by Morris Berman with the grim title “The Waning of the Modern Ages”. Published in Counterpunch, the article was prompted by Berman’s musings after reading an essay in the November 2011 Nation by Naomi Wolf that dealt with the inherent incompatibility between the changing climate and capitalism. The article brought to mind my brother’s response when I sent him an article that cited the incontrovertible evidence that man was affecting the climate: “So if we ARE affecting the climate, we will have to make some big changes”. The Berman essay describes some of them… but Bill McKibben’s writings, which cover the same ground, offer a bit more hope for the future than Berman seems to.

This essay to the overarching theme of this blog, which is devoted to opening and changing our minds about education…. and it poses the overarching question about change itself: IS it possible to make large changes in people’s thinking without having some kind of crisis? Many progressive writers believe the propagandists for privatization have created a crisis in education in the minds of the public with the intention of moving towards a deregulated corporate model that will allow for profiteering. Instead of lamenting this fabricated crisis it might be better for progressives to create an alternative vision— one that embraces the ideals of Dewey instead of the ideals of Terman.

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