More Medicine For Kids

April 12, 2014 Leave a comment

Yesterday’s NYTmes featured an article by Alan Schwarz on an emerging new form of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHD) called “sluggish cognitive tempo” (SCT) which is “…characterized by lethargy, daydreaming and slow mental processing.”  Schwarz writes:

Experts pushing for more research into sluggish cognitive tempo say it is gaining momentum toward recognition as a legitimate disorder — and, as such, a candidate for pharmacological treatment. Some of the condition’s researchers have helped Eli Lilly investigate how its flagship A.D.H.D. drug might treat it.

It isn’t hard to imagine that Big Pharma and Big Data might be joined at the hip: Big Data tests kids based on their “academic growth” as compared to students in the same age cohort and Big Pharma comes up with a “flagship drug” to treat students whose growth fails to match that of their peers.

Fortunately, at this juncture, the existence of SCT is still in dispute. The article quotes some academics and medical practitioners who are cautious about defining SCT as a medical condition:

“We’re seeing a fad in evolution: Just as A.D.H.D. has been the diagnosis du jour for 15 years or so, this is the beginning of another,” said Dr. Allen Frances, an emeritus professor of psychiatry at Duke University. “This is a public health experiment on millions of kids.”

A public health experiment whose patients are too often identified because of our obsession with test scores. Later another skeptical academic was quoted:

Steve S. Lee, an associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, who serves on the editorial board of The Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, said in an interview that he was conflicted over the journal’s emphasis on sluggish cognitive tempo. He expressed concern that A.D.H.D. had already grown to encompass too many children with common youthful behavior, or whose problems are derived not from a neurological disorder but from inadequate sleep, a different learning disability or other sources.

The article eventually links the pharmaceutical industry with the medical practitioners who are advocating the identification of SCT as a medical condition, reporting that Eli Lilly underwrote the study that determined that Strattera, their leading ADHD drug, benefited children with this diagnosis. Later in the article, it noted that the physician who identified SCT as a medical condition “…received $118,000 from 2009 to 2012 for consulting and speaking engagements” underwritten by Eli Lilly. The same physician declined to comment on “…his financial interests in the condition’s acceptance.

Having recently watched The Dallas Buyers Club and had too many instances of cancer diagnoses among family members and friends, I can appreciate where someone suffering from a disease might be annoyed that a drug that might help them is unavailable… But my experience tells me that in too many cases parents, doctors, and teachers often look for a quick and simple way to solve a complicated problem… and Big Pharma is only too happy to provide what the “patient” needs. Before we go any further with this “public health experiment” we might want to take a look at what is leading to the diagnosis of this disorder: our unrealistic expectation that all children will develop at the same rate intellectually and that all children must conform to an education system that defines “daydreaming” as a condition requiring medication.

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The Debate We Haven’t Had

April 10, 2014 1 comment

Jessica Lahey’s post in today’s Motherlode section of the NYTimes purports to provide an overview of standardized testing for parents. From my perspective it implicitly supported the mandates incorporated in Race To The Top, the way NYS implemented it’s testing program, and the value of standardized testing in general. It concluded with this platitudinous paragraph:

As states struggle to align curriculum and No Child Left Behind Act testing to the Common Core State Standards, and decide what role, if any, testing will play in teacher and school evaluation, parents are left to define their role in state and federal government’s efforts to shape the future of education for our children. While parents may choose to opt out of their state’s standardized tests, we can’t choose to opt out of the debate over education and our nation’s effort to assure rigor and higher standards for all children.

Anyone who reads this blog realizes that STATES had no opportunity to “decide what role, if any, testing will play in teacher and school evaluation”. As Superintendent in New Hampshire in 2010 and 2011 I urged my colleagues and the Commissioner to say no to the Race To The Top because it required the use of Value Added Measures (see my white papers elsewhere on this blog for details on this). Furthermore, parent have NEVER been encouraged to enter into the debate over education…. indeed there has been NO debate at the national level over education since 2001 when NCLB was adopted. All of this led me to enter the following comment:

Here are some points readers should also know. First, the Common Core State Standards (CSSS) was a de facto mandate included in Race To The Top (RTTT), the Obama administration’s workaround to the fact that NCLB was not re-authorized. In order to get RTTT funding states HAD to agree that test results would play a role in teacher and school evaluation. There was no public debate on the national level about CCSS, RTTT, the new tests, or the way tests would be used to measure teacher, student and teacher performance. For better or worse our legislators have opted out over the debate over education, ceding the direction we are headed in public education to the US Department of Education. At this juncture, for-profit charter operators, testing companies, and technology magnates are engaged in the “debate over education” while parents, teachers, school boards, and the public are on the sidelines. This marginalization is fueling the opt out movement.

As a reader of Orwell, I know that one way to control the future is to control history… and unless parents are clear about how the CCSS, RTTT, and the testing regimen we have now was put in place they will have no way to fix the problems that are in place.

Kristoff Stumbles

April 10, 2014 Leave a comment

“Where the GOP Gets it Right”, Nick Kristoff’s column today in the NYTimes gets it wrong when it comes to analyzing public education. In identifying areas where the GOP’s policy analysis is correct, he writes:

SCHOOL REFORM Republicans were right to blow the whistle on broken school systems, for education in inner-city schools is the civil rights issue of the 21st century. Democrats, in cahoots with teachers’ unions and protective of a dysfunctional system, were long part of the problem.

Bravo to Republicans for protesting that teachers’ unions were sometimes protecting disastrous teachers (including, in New York City, one who passed out drunk in her classroom, with even the principal unable to rouse her). Likewise, some of the most successful schools in the inner cities have been charters in the Knowledge Is Power Program, showing what is possible even in troubled cities.

Yet Democrats, led by President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, are coming around, and teachers’ unions have moderated. Republicans sometimes suggest that our biggest educational problem is teachers’ unions themselves. That’s absurd.States with strong teachers’ unions in the North like Massachusetts have better schools than states in the South with weak unions.

Meanwhile, one of the most important evidence-backed school reforms is public preschool and home visitation for disadvantaged kids, yet Republicans are blocking any national move to universal prekindergarten (even though Republican-led states like Oklahoma are leaders in pre-K).

These three paragraphs prompted me to write two comments. First:

School systems are not broken: well-funded school systems that pay teachers well and educate children raised in affluence do as well as any on earth. Underfunded school systems who pay teachers less well and educate children raised in poverty are challenged. Neither Republicans nor Democrats are willing to face the fact that educating children in poverty requires more government resources in health and social services and more support for single parents. And in this post-Reagan era, neither party is willing to say that government might be the solution and not the problem.

And second:

One more caveat regarding the KIPP’s performance in inner city schools: a review of these posts from Diane Ravitch’s blog might mitigate the use of the term “success”: It seems KIPP de-selects poor performing students, costs substantially more per pupil than public schools, and engages in some disciplinary practices that would not be allowed in a public school.

Nick Kristoff is usually on the mark when it comes to social policy issues, particularly the effects of poverty. Indeed, in this article he concludes with this call for the GOP to provide more than words:

If we offer the needy nothing but slogans and reprimands — “Strengthen your family! Get a job! Get an education!” — then our antipoverty programs are a cruel joke as bankrupt as Marie Antoinette’s “Let them eat cake.”

Needy schools are like needy citizens… they get slogans like “school reform” and “accountability” and reprimands like “work longer hours” and “set higher standards”… but when it comes to funding, they don’t even get cake: they get the crumbs that fall on the floor.

Where’s the Evidence?

April 10, 2014 Leave a comment

Today’s Washington Post includes a re-publication of a blog post written Stanford professor emeritus (and technology skeptic) Larry Cuban titled “The Problem with Evidence Based Education Policy: the Evidence”

In his post, Cuban asserts that despite the exhortations of policy makers to base their decisions on evidence, in the final analysis politics, not science, determines the course education takes. One of the reasons, he suggests, might be that in medicine, where evidence-based research has been in place, studies yield conflicting conclusions often leaving patients confused about what course of action to take to remain healthy.

In education, which has many examples where scientific evidence for policy changes based on political decisions is lacking, Cuban goes after the hype about the transformative change the would occur when there were more computers in the classroom. He concludes his post by reviewing a meta-analysis by John Hattie, a professor at the University of Auckland (NZ), and writes: 

According to Hattie’s meta-analyses, then, introducing computers to students will  fall well below other instructional strategies that teachers can and do use. Will Hattie’s findings convince educational policymakers to focus more on teaching? Not as long as political choices trump research findings.

That last sentence brought to mind a Vox post I read yesterday by Ezra Klein titled “How Politics Makes Us Stupid”. The post detailed research done by Yale law professor Dan Kahan based on The Science Comprehension Thesis “which says the problem is that the public doesn’t know enough about science to judge the debate. It’s a version of the More Information Hypothesis: a smarter, better educated citizenry wouldn’t have all these problems reading the science and accepting its clear conclusion(s)…”

Kahan wanted to test his belief that the More Information Hypothesis was wrong: that people actually want to get more information in order for them to support their hypotheses, not to test their hypothesis.

…Kahan and his team had an alternative hypothesis. Perhaps people aren’t held back by a lack of knowledge. After all, they don’t typically doubt the findings of oceanographers or the existence of other galaxies. Perhaps there are some kinds of debates where people don’t want to find the right answer so much as they want to win the argument. Perhaps humans reason for purposes other than finding the truth — purposes like increasing their standing in their community, or ensuring they don’t piss off the leaders of their tribe. If this hypothesis proved true, then a smarter, better-educated citizenry wouldn’t put an end to these disagreements. It would just mean the participants are better equipped to argue for their own side.

Klein’s post then details Kahan’s research on this issue, which provided evidence that supported his premise that in general people screen out information that is contrary to their convictions and grab onto any information that supports their theory.

Applications of Kahan’s research abound in education. Valerie Strauss’s blog post in the Washington Post, for example, is titled “Another Study Shows Charters Do No Better Than Public Schools”…. and the title tells the the conclusion of the research…. and Strauss’ concluding paragraph echoes Kahan’s conclusion:

Will these results (showing charters make no difference) give pause to efforts to promote charter schools in Chicago? Don’t hold your breath. The charter movement has big money behind it among hedge fund managers on Wall Street (who recently bankrolled to the tune of millions of dollars an ad campaign to attack New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) for a stand he took on charter schools that supporters didn’t like).  And it’s folks with the big money who are helping to drive education policy these days.

So… can big money be defeated? And how do we make the changes we need if people’s minds are resistant to  reason and logic? Klein’s post ends on a somewhat optimistic note:

The silver lining is that politics doesn’t just take place in Washington. The point of politics is policy. And most people don’t experience policy as a political argument. They experience it as a tax bill, or a health insurance card, or a deployment. And, ultimately, there’s no spin effective enough to persuade Americans to ignore a cratering economy, or skyrocketing health-care costs, or a failing war. A political movement that fools itself into crafting national policy based on bad evidence is a political movement that will, sooner or later, face a reckoning at the polls.

At least, that’s the hope. But that’s not true on issues, like climate change, where action is needed quickly to prevent a disaster that will happen slowly. There, the reckoning will be for future generations to face. And it’s not true when American politics becomes so warped by gerrymandering, big money, and congressional dysfunction that voters can’t figure out who to blame for the state of the country. If American politics is going to improve, it will be better structures, not better arguments, that win the day.

So here’s two questions for public education advocates:

  • When will those making “national policy based on bad evidence… face a reckoning at the polls”?
  • What are the “better structures” we need to put in place that can help us “win the day”?

MOOCs Get Social

April 9, 2014 Leave a comment

This BBC article about how online students have gravitated toward face-to-face “learning hubs” reminded me to the perhaps apocryphal story of how architects design walkways: instead of determining their placement in advance they wait to see where students walk and THEN put them in place.

Coursera, faced with high drop out rates, has subcontracted the operation of learning hubs to partner organizations who provide “…a place where students following Coursera online courses can come to study together and get help from mentors.” While anyone familiar with student learning could have told Coursera that most students would not thrive in a completely isolated independent learning environment, the fact that these hubs grew organically is a testament to the fact that an organization committed to disruption can modify its approach much more quickly and effectively than institutions like colleges and– yes– public schools can. Oh… and formal “learning hubs” are quickly being overtaken by self-organized “meet-ups”, as described in the BBC article:

As well as the more formal learning hubs, self-organised “meet-ups” for Coursera students have sprung up in more than 3,700 cities around the world, based around specific Coursera online courses.

For example, in London there are groups meeting in cafes at the British Library and the South Bank Centre. In Paris, there are meetings in the Pompidou Centre and in university buildings.

Meet-ups are held in a whole range of public places, where students want to discuss and debate these digital courses.

They’re scheduled and arranged online, with the only vital ingredients being a laptop, wi-fi and somewhere to talk.

From where I sit and write this… in the Howe Library in Hanover NH, this is the future of education.


Utopian Possibilities

April 9, 2014 Leave a comment

I recently reblogged a lengthy post from blogger Bob Shepherd that dealt with the relationship between the CCSS and the big data, adding a dystopian overview based on the current trajectory of “schooling”. A very brief summary of his analysis: when publishers saw that open source course materials could undercut their business they decided to develop a uniform set of curriculum guidelines that would enable them to retain a stranglehold on the sales of curriculum materials. My comments envisioned a world where 20% of the students were home schooled or unschooled, 40% attended for-profit charters using some form of vouchers, and only 40% of the students remained in “government operated” schools. i concluded my dystopian outlook with this sentence:  The likelihood of this trajectory increases as long as we define “good schooling” as “high test scores” based on age-based grade-level groupings… and for that reason we need to de-couple “schooling” from “testing”.  

What would a Utopian future look like? I think that it is possible that open source advocates and progressive educators could develop a De-schooling platform that would enable students to progress at their own pace through learning materials that are readily available on-line. “Schools” would be replaced by “Community Learning Centers” where teacher/counselor/coaches would help students master fundamental reading and mathematical skills and help students find materials that interest them, compel reflective thinking, and foster intellectual growth. The Community Learning Centers would also house offices for public social service and health agencies and provide before and after “school” child care. Classrooms where students are efficiently batched by age and grade level would be replaced by ad hoc seminar rooms where teacher/counselor/coaches guide dialogues.

This kind of future might be possible for some students without public schools… well educated homeschooling parents have already created their own version of this utopian platform (without the health and social services) by pooling resources to rent space and create “learning centers” where their children are free to learn at their own pace. The parents of these students recognize the value and importance of divergent thinking, creativity, and dialogue and see that those elements of schooling are not valued in schools where testing dominates the environment. If we are not encouraging divergent and creative thinking we are leaving an entire portion of a generation behind… and at this point in time our mania with testing is doing just that.

Connecting the Pieces: Open Source, Big Data, and the Origins of the Common [sic] Core [sic]

April 9, 2014 Leave a comment


You’re on the money with this overview… but there are some unintended consequences that might result. Here’s one dystopian scenario: It’s not inconceivable that parents will not only opt out of tests, they will opt out of school altogether. States have weak and virtually unenforceable home school requirements… and the real money to be made is not in curriculum development but in TESTING. So Pearson, for example, might approach a state where parents are opting out of SCHOOL in greater numbers and pitch the idea that their tests should be used in lieu of a submission of a “plan of studies” or whatever lame requirement is in place at the State level. The states, starved of resources by the lack of government funding, will welcome this and pass the costs of the tests along to the homeschooling parents. Eventually public education will devolve into a DIY fee-for-service enterprise for, say, 20% of the population… another 40% will use some form of vouchers to enroll in private, sectarian, or for-profit charter schools… and the last 40% will remain in what we currently think of as public schools. This will achieve a lot of the ends desired by the business community: there will be money made in testing, in the for-profit charter sector, and in avoided taxes as voters reject school spending on the grounds that only a few kids attend school— and since the kids left in school are the children of voiceless and disenfranchised no one will care. The likelihood of this trajectory increases as long as we define “good schooling” as “high test scores” based on age-based grade-level groupings… and for that reason we need to de-couple “schooling” from “testing”.

Originally posted on Bob Shepherd | Praxis:

800px-Japanese_camera_for_surveillance_2How educational publishers PLAYED and PWNED a nation’s educrats and politicians

(A term from the gaming world, pwned, a blend of pawn and owned, is a neologism meaning “achieved total control and/or domination over.” If an opponent uses you, against your better interests, to achieve his or her own objectives, or if you are obliterated within seconds of the beginning of game play, then you have been pwned.)

The last state has now pulled out of the proposed national database of student responses and scores. Those who were horrified at the prospect of such a privately held, Orwellian Total Information Awareness system for K-12 public school education, one that would have served as a de facto checkpoint and censor librorum for curricula, are cheering.

But don’t think for a moment that Big Data has been beaten. I am going to explain why. I hope that you will…

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